Remember watching the Olympics when you were a kid? There was a whole world of possibility! You could watch any sport and wonder whether maybe you had some innate gift for it and would be competing for your country in 20 years.
As you moved through your later childhood and teen years, your dreams had to die bit by bit. You’d realize that you weren’t even the best hockey player on your school’s team, or you’d fail to qualify for regionals in track. Maybe you shot up to a stocky 5’10 and realized you wouldn’t be much of a gymnast. Or maybe you didn’t get that far — maybe, by age 12 or so, you came to realize that you’re just … not athletic.
And yet, every two years – at the summer and winter Olympics – I start to get a little ahead of myself. Just like when I was five years old, I watch the events and wonder if maybe it’s not too late.
Well, friends, I’m here to kill those dreams. I’ve done a little research, and it looks like if you haven’t started most Winter Olympics events by a certain (usually young) age, you’ll never be using “next-level Tinder” in the Olympic village or wearing your country’s weird Cosby/teacher sweater in the Parade of Nations.
Obviously, there are exceptions to all of these. There really are savants who can take up a sport and be at a competitive level right away. There are also some people who are so preternaturally athletic that they’ll excel in any sport you throw at them. Of course, if you’re already skilled in a closely related sport, it’s also not that hard to take up a new one. Generally, though, there are timelines for these things:
Alpine Skiing, Freestyle Skiing, Ski Jumping
I guess with most downhill and … I don’t know, fancy, jump-y?… skiing events, it’s less the exact age that you start, and more that (1) you begin fairly young, and most importantly (2) you ski regularly when you’re young, not just on a once-annual ski vacation. Most Olympians started skiing – at least regular, bunny hill skiing – by the time they were six or seven. A skier could theoretically start later, but most Olympians came from skiing families and their parents weren’t going to wait until they were 11 to put them on the slopes. Coming from a family that skis means that you got to ski regularly during your childhood – and definitely teen – years. A kid whose parents maybe took them to the slopes in sixth grade, then went once a year or so after that, just isn’t going to develop the necessary skills.
Cross Country Skiing, Biathlon, Nordic Combined
The great thing about cross-country skiing is that even very young children can start. It’s tougher than it looks, and competitive-level cross country skiing has massive energy demands and uses pretty much every muscle group. That being said, a very athletically inclined, very fit person could probably begin cross country skiing and move up the competitive ranks even if he or she started in early adulthood – if they were the very rare case, and put a ton of time and effort into it. If you’re interested, the US Ski Team website can point you to USSA Clubs that will introduce you to recreational and competitive Nordic skiing. At the very least, you’ll pick up a fun hobby and work on your fitness.
If you’ve followed the US bobsled team this year, you know that track star Lolo Jones joined the team after beginning training just last year. Of course, she falls into the “preternaturally athletic” category, so … you know. But I bet you’ve also seen Cool Runnings, right? If not, what were you doing in the 90s? Find it on Netflix or get it at your local library. Please. Those guys were from Jamaica – so, you know, not the snowiest – and began practicing on dry land. However, like Miss Jones, these fellas were pretty athletic to start with. The real problem with bobsled (bobsleigh, I guess?) is opportunity. You probably don’t have the equipment, training, climate, or local interest to start. But if you can get together all of those things, and are already a strong, fast person, and ideally have citizenship in a country that’s not very competitive about winter sports, you just might make it.
Curling is the one sport that all of us can look at and think “yep, I can do it.” Truly, you could start curling at a pretty advanced age and make it to the Olympics. It’s not a sport that relies on the sprightliness of youth, and the physical demands don’t require years of conditioning. Nevertheless, there is a certain skill to curling, and it will take a while to develop the knack for it. If you join a local curling club and get serious about it, curling is a sport that doesn’t necessitate childhood training. That doesn’t mean that anyone can do it – just that if you’re going to be good at it, you can start as a grown-up.
Are you old enough to be reading this post? Like, your mom isn’t reading it aloud to you because you’re still getting Hooked on Phonics? Then you’re probably too old for this one. Most figure skaters took to the ice by – at the latest – upper elementary school (and that’s only if they’re really, naturally good at it). It’s a sport that can put a lot of wear on you, which is why you don’t see a lot of figure skaters competing after their late 20s or early 30s. By their teens, most serious figure skaters are putting in early mornings on the rink, and possibly getting home schooled. True story: when both my sister and I expressed interest in figure skating, my dad brushed us off with “okay, but you’d have to move to Texas to do it.” Why Texas? Who knows. We only wanted to skate for fun, but if you’re a serious competitor, you could easily move cities or states for the sport once you’re in high school. The only scenario I could see where someone could start figure skating in late childhood or early teens is if they already were already a very solid regular skater, and were skilled in dance, acrobatics, or gymnastics besides. And frankly, even that is a stretch.
Take it from someone who lives in the cold, white north: most competitive hockey players get really serious, really young. Most hockey players start to skate when they’re really little, and are on teams by the late-single digits. Frequently, hockey players will join competitive regional club teams rather than their high school team. Of course, there can be exceptions. A very good team athlete – maybe at field hockey or soccer – who also knows how to skate very well could maybe join their high school team and get pretty good. That would be a rare case indeed, though. A kid will usually be competing pretty seriously by junior high. However, most of those rag-tag kiddos in The Mighty Ducks hadn’t put on skates before, and they were competing against the best hockey teens in the world, so who knows?
Luge and Skeleton
Sad yet true sign of my misspent college years: while watching the luge competition, I thought to myself “hey, this is just like an ice luge! But with humans!” Then I realized that I’m an idiot. According to the United States Luge Association, there are many levels of team participation, with hundreds of athletes trying out every year. It is best for kids to start luge by age 10, and it generally takes about 8-10 years to develop skills to compete at the international level. British athlete Lizzy Yarnold recently said that you cant start bobsleigh or skeleton until age 16. Evidently skeleton star Amy Williams didn’t begin until she was 19 or 20. The skill set just isn’t as fine-tuned as that for luge.
What I said of skiing is basically true for snowboard. Most athletes start young and practice regularly. The only difference here is that, at least in the past, a lot of snowboarders would start with skiing as kids, then go into snowboard later in their teens, already having developed the center of gravity to, um, get down a mountain okay. That’s changed a bit, and more and more people have begun snowboarding in childhood. Still, a very talented skier could begin boarding as a teen, turn out to have a gift for it, and be at international level by their 20s. In theory. Sometimes. Once again, hitting the slopes twice a year will not get you there.
In countries where speed skating is a big deal (Hello, Netherlands. You’re made of canals), kids start on the ice practically right after they learn how to walk. If you’re from a less speed skating-heavy country, and are already a darn good skater thanks to figure skating, hockey, or just lots of practice and natural talent, you could put off competing until a little later. Speed skating is a sport of the young, though – the “masters” level starts at age 30. Ouch.
In conclusion, at least there’s still curling, right?