Olympic diver Jennifer Abel spins in the air, with her legs tucked into her chest, before entering the pool

Olympic medalist (and new mom) Jennifer Abel’s advice for parents: support, support, support

Jennifer Abel has loved diving ever since she watched her brother Andy jump up and down on the springboard. “I said to my mom, ‘That’s exactly what I want to do,’” Abel recalls.

Abel would go on to compete in four Olympic games and earn two diving medals, but she started out as one of the kids at the local pool in Laval, Que.

Abel’s parents, Sylvie Danis and Jacques-André Abel, strongly believed that their children should learn to swim at a young age, for basic safety. Abel was enrolled in swimming lessons and artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronized swimming) when she became transfixed by the sight of her older sibling soaring off the board.

“I was drawn to everything about diving,” Abel explains. “It takes strength and flexibility in every muscle you have. I love the adrenaline rush and the feeling of being free in the air.”

A platform of family support

Abel’s enthusiasm for the sport was apparent, with one complication: her parents didn’t know anything about diving. Nevertheless, they jumped right in. Although they couldn’t coach their daughter on the technical details, they were able to provide support and guidance on the mental aspect of the sport.

“When I was young and facing a difficult dive, my mom told me to think about my favourite cartoon character, Mickey Mouse,” Abel recalls. “She said to imagine him wearing the same bathing suit as me, doing the same movements—and the visualizing eased my nervousness.”

Abel also remembers a moment where her father’s unconditional support helped her to persevere with a particularly high-risk dive.

“In one competition, my head came so close to the board that I felt my hair touch it,” Abel says. Completely rattled, she was reluctant to attend practice the next day. Her father accompanied her to the pool and stayed in the stands while she attempted the dive again.

“I still remember how I felt that day, knowing that no matter what, he was there,” Abel says. “I felt supported, but even more than that, I felt safe.”

When Abel’s brother switched from diving to baseball, the family’s schedule became even busier. Her parents were constantly running between the pool and the baseball field, but they somehow always managed to make it work. “The best advice I can give to parents who want their kids to be in a sport— any sport—is to be there to support them every single day,” Abel says.

Parent support can come in many forms—for example, being a coach, trainer, driver, manager, photographer, or simply a devoted cheerleader. That unwavering support is especially important on tough days. “We all want to be the best, but sometimes we’re not,” Abel says. “When that happens, it’s important to remind kids that sport should be fun. If they enjoyed themselves and gave their best that day, that’s what matters.”

Mid-dive, Jennifer Abel enters the pool upside down with her arms out straight above her head

Parenting goals

Now retired from competition, the 30-year-old Abel has taken the plunge into a new role: motherhood. She and fiancé David Lemieux welcomed son Xander in May, and Abel says they intend to expose him to a wide range of sports and activities.

“Absolutely, we will put our son in sport, but he’s going to choose his own path,” Abel says. “We don’t want him to feel pressure because he has a world-champion dad in boxing and Olympic-medalist mom in diving. He will play outside and try different sports, and eventually he will decide his direction.”

And, if Xander’s favourite sport isn’t diving, Abel says that’s fine with her. “If he’s making the choice and doing what he wants, he’s going to put more energy and quality time into it.” 

Tips for parents

Kids will naturally gravitate to a sport that suits their personality, so keep an open mind as you help your child discover their passion. Here are some ideas to expose your kids to a variety of activities:

  • Try it all. Register them for a multi-sport summer camp to get a sampling of different activities and access to an assortment of sports equipment.
  • Take it outside. During the summer, make an effort to cut back on screen time and replace it with unstructured outdoor play. Who knows, they may end up inventing their own sport!
  • Get involved. At school, encourage them to sign up for intramurals, sports teams, and active clubs.
  • Look for peer role models. Take your child to watch a friend, neighbour, or cousin in their chosen sport or activity.
  • Think outside the box. Traditional sports like hockey and soccer are a great fit for some kids, but your child may be suited for a less “mainstream” team sport, or possibly an individual one.

One thing is certain: if, like Jennifer Abel, your child tugs on your sleeve and says “I want to try this,” do your best to be receptive and give it a go! You never know where the journey might take you.

Photos by Leah Hennel/COC.

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