How do you share a love for the outdoors with your kids? Some of the biggest names in climbing, mountain biking, skiing, ultrarunning and adventure racing offer their advice.
At some point, most kids consider their parents superheroes. But sometimes those grownups really do come close. We’re talking about elite endurance athletes. Believe it or not, many top athletes have kids, and they’ve managed to share their passions with their sons and daughters while continuing to thrive in their sports.
Dave Wiens, Mountain Biker
Long before discovering he could really suffer on a mountain bike (to the tune of winning the Leadville 100 every year from 2003 to 2008), Dave Wiens wanted to be a pro skier. Before that, expedition whitewater kayaking was his obsession. And before that, when he was a kid, his focus was football. “I was a very competitive kid,” says Wiens, now the executive director of the International Mountain Bike Association. “I liked working toward a goal and having people to measure myself against.”
Although he loved skiing and kayaking, he wasn't good enough to make a living at the sports. So, he enrolled in Western State Colorado University to pursue a career in filmmaking and entered some local races. “It was a fledgling scene with a small pool of talent, and I was in the right place at the right time,” says Wiens. “I loved the process of preparing and training and going to a race and getting instant feedback.”
This quest for self-improvement led Wiens to put a premium on planning and preparation. When he and his wife, professional mountain biker and Olympic bronze medalist Susan DeMattei, started a family—Cooper was born in 1998, and twins Sam and Ben were born in 2000—they thought immersing their kids in the outdoors would instill those same lessons. “The boys all got on bikes early, and they were skiing at a young age because biking and skiing were most accessible to us where we lived,” says Wiens. “Ironically, none of them were really passionate about any of our sports.”
But that wasn’t a problem for Wiens, who says he's “never been very career interested; I’m more interested in the journey of life.” As for his kids, even though they didn’t have the same competitive spirit their parents did, the family mantra has instilled the same ethic that racing bikes gave to Wiens: responsibility, attitude, effort. “Since they were babies, they’ve heard these words in everything they do. Did they take responsibility? How was their attitude? What was their effort?”
These days, the family shares dinners and the occasional hike, and Wiens says he supports his kids’ explorations of all their options. Better yet, the laid-back approach appears to be paying off—at least partly. “Cooper, our oldest, has become quite a mountain biker, and he’s into skiing too, now that he’s in college. And the twins are still young. They’ve got plenty of time to figure out what they love.”
Pro Tip: Expose your kids to the outdoors repeatedly and as early as possible, but don’t force it, says Wiens. “The message we want to give is, ‘What is it you’re interested in doing? You can do anything you want. It’s not important you love mountain biking, but it is important you love something.’ We gave them every type of opportunity we could.”
Lynn Hill, Rock Climber
Lynn Hill knows it’s not easy to share a rope with her. Whether you’re her teenage son or a friend, once people recognize the iconic climber, attention floods in. “I assumed my son would love to go camping and be outside, but he is not a climber,” says Hill, 56, whose feats include freeing the Nose on El Cap and claiming the first 24-hour ascent on it a year later, among others. “All of the attention given to me tends to detract from anyone else, and that’s created a mystique that’s intimidating to compete with, and he doesn’t want to have that comparison. He wants to do what he wants to do.”
Fortunately for Owen, 14, his mother understands this compulsion. Hill broke barriers for women in the 1980s and 1990s, carving out a career as a professional climber before that was even a thing. In 1988 she married, but the union didn’t last, in part because of her travel and climbing demands and also because she wanted a child. “I figured I’d have a kid,” says Hill. “I like the idea of this cycle of give and take. When I was younger, I traveled all over the world and was free to do what I wanted. Having a child feels like another major life experience.”
Motherhood also curtailed her ability to jet to the far reaches of the globe, especially since she was a solo parent. After “making some decisions so I can be around more often,” Hill transitioned into an ambassador role for her sponsors and poured her creative energy into a forthcoming film on climbing technique and her personal thought process on the rock. As for Owen, her expectations of a life immersed in the outdoors have taken a backseat to accepting his preference for riding BMX bikes and skateboarding—not that she minds. “Kids need to be seen for who they are and who they choose to be,” says Hill.
Sometimes, that even means embracing what Hill calls the lazy teenager in the house. “He begged me for a dog, promised he’d walk it daily, and guess who’s the one out there every day?” she says, adding it’s not her son walking the dog. “He doesn’t have a lot of drive for training or discipline, and he’s not into hiking or going on walks, and honestly that is fine. His temperament is different from mine.”
Acceptance is critical in all aspects of parenting, says Hill, and particularly so in regards to the outdoors. “I’ve learned to be tolerant and to let things work out the way they will,” she says. “Try not to take responsibility for what you can’t—and probably don’t want to—change.”
Pro Tip: Hill says she has taken Owen on plenty of camping and outdoor adventures since he was a baby. For families with hesitant kiddos, she recommends going on trips with friends who have kids of similar ages. “That way, everyone wants to go and the kids have playmates while the grown-ups can tag team and get some time [climbing]. It’s the best way to be active and outside and have fun with your kids.”
Anita Ortiz, Ultrarunner
Becoming a mother propelled Vail Valley's Anita Ortiz to become the successful athlete she is today. Although she’d long been a runner, she had never competed. But the mother of four was looking for an outlet, something to affirm her identity beyond “mom” when she was about 35 years old, so she entered a few local mountain trail races and won them. “I wasn’t my own person anymore, and I needed to find something just for me,” says Ortiz.
Becoming the national mountain running champion six times and landing a spot on the World Cup Team (also six times) definitely counted. Add in subsequent successes in ultrarunning and snowshoe racing, and Ortiz’s reputation as a champion endurance athlete is solid.
When she wasn’t running or raising her kids (three daughters, ages 20 to 24, and a son, age 20), Ortiz worked full time as a kindergarten teacher, a job she still holds. She insists juggling these responsibilities wasn’t difficult; it just demanded impeccable time management skills and the ability to crush a workout at 3:30am. And while Ortiz and her husband loved the outdoors, their children tried many different sports and activities, from soccer to dance to karate to swimming. Sure, they skied (in Vail, skiing is a school activity), and they hiked and camped and even went trail running with their mom. But when they were little, the Ortiz kids were more likely to be at the swimming pool than on top of a mountain.
Family bonding came through time spent together, and not necessarily on outdoor adventures. “We are a super close family,” she says. “We don’t have a television. We don’t play video games. We always hang out together. When the kids were younger, we played cards and baked. We went to everyone’s events. Everything we did, we did together.”
Now that they’re older, two of her daughters have taken up running, and all the children enjoy time outside. But most important, says Ortiz, is that the kids still prioritize their relationship with one another and with Ortiz and her husband.
Pro Tip: Kids who grow up in the natural world are more concerned about the well-being of different species and are kind, good people, says Ortiz. Though none of her children are avid adventurers, “they are all very concerned about the world,” she says. To cultivate that in your own kids, expose them to the outdoors but don’t overprogram them, she says. Allow them to explore on their own. “We would actually push them out the door and lock it,” she says. “Instead of telling them what to do all day long, I let them go be kids.”
Chris Davenport, Ski Mountaineer
If anyone's been born on skis, it's professional ski mountaineer Chris Davenport. His father was a ski racer who met his mother at a race in Colorado's Winter Park in 1968. Chris and his siblings grew up ski racing in New Hampshire, and both his sisters made the U.S. Ski Team and for many World Cup Starts. His folks took the kids backpacking, and at age 14, Davenport discovered rock climbing. As a teen, if he wasn’t climbing, he was working a summer job at the local ski hill. He always knew he’d have a career in the industry; he just wasn’t sure what it would look like. And then Davenport won the 1996 World Extreme Skiing Championships in Alaska, and the doors opened wide.
By then he was dating Jess, the woman who’d become his wife, who also was a ripping ski patroller at Snowmass in Colorado. Early on, their relationship was skiing and, well, skiing. The two married in 1999, but prior to their wedding, Davenport said he didn’t give family a whole lot of thought. “But I came from a good family so I suppose it was always in the back of my mind,” he says. And pretty soon it was at the forefront, with the birth of the couple’s first son (they are now parents to three boys, ages 16, 14, and 9). Everyone says marriage is about compromise, and Davenport readily agrees, crediting his wife with “so much of the child raising and home business while I’ve been on the road and making a living to support the family.”
“Our relationship works really well in this way, but it definitely would not work for everyone,” says Davenport. “I’m away a lot, sometimes for a month or two, so that can be hard. But Jess is an angel and a skier so she gets it. She understands my passion because she shares it herself.”
When he’s home (and even when he’s not), the family spends most of their time outside. “Our only parenting philosophy was to get them out there playing on snow as much as possible,” says Davenport. “We always looked at skiing as fun, and what kid doesn’t want to have fun all the time? By the time they were 5, they were skiing with groups with instructors and coaches and then racing by age 7. So it’s a quick learning curve when mom and dad are on the hill every day.”
Pro Tip: If you make it fun the kids will love it, whatever the activity may be, says Davenport. Be a kid yourself and show them that you can have a great time while still being a responsible adult. Show, don’t tell, them how to be comfortable outside. “I realized once I became a parent how much I had actually learned from my parents and my own upbringing,” he says. “Kids tend to discount the teachings and influence of their parents when they are young and in their teens, but those lessons definitely resonate. So, be your model self and you can expect good results.”
Ingrid Backstrom, Freeskiing
When she was seven months pregnant, Ingrid Backstrom shot footage for Warren Miller Entertainment, longtime producer of ski films. She also coached the freestyle team at her local mountain, Washington’s Crystal Mountain Resort, basking in the epic 2015-2016 snow season that pummeled the Pacific Northwest. Shredding with a baby on board was second nature for the big mountain phenom who has placed top three in 13 of 16 freeskiing contests, and has racked up myriad awards along with cameos in countless ski films.
Her sponsors have sent her to Greenland, China, Alaska, and beyond, all so she could put her climbing and skiing prowess to test. In fact, for years skiing—and not relationships or family—came first. Her family never questioned that decision. “I was raised with a huge emphasis on skiing, camping, and getting out into the outdoors, and my parents never spelled out what they wanted me to do,” she says.
Now she wants the same for her almost 2-year-old daughter, Betty. Being a mother to a young child has definitely required a shift in scheduling for Backstrom, but she says reality has been far easier than what she expected. “Before you have kids, it feels like you might never get to recreate or do anything fun again once you become a mom, but that doesn't have to be the case,” she says. “There's always a way to get out, just stick the kid in the backpack and go for a hike.”
As for passing on her passion to her daughter, Backstrom says their goal is for Betty to have fun, be safe and follow what interests her with regards to mountain sports. “I hope she learns that trying hard and challenging yourself can be very rewarding and has impacts far beyond what one can achieve in sports,” says Backstrom. “Our parenting philosophy would be along those lines: be kind, try your best and listen.”
Pro Tip: When pregnant, register for outdoor items or suggest people go in on group gifts. “It feels weird, but people are going to give you things anyway, so ask for tools to help the whole family get outside,” she says. "Things that really help are an off-road stroller, a trailer for biking and cross-country skiing, a front pack and backpack for hiking, and perhaps some light, super mellow ski touring gear.”
Mark and Travis Macy (Father and Son) Ultra Running, Adventure Racing, Hunting
When you watch your dad cross the finish line on the Leadville 100, circa 1988, it’s bound to make an impression. For Travis Macy, who was there when his father Mark finished his first of many 100 miles in Leadville, a poignant moment was listening to race director Ken Chlouber give participants a pep talk the night before the race. “He told them, ‘You’re better than you think you are and you can do more than you think you can.’ That stuff sinks in,” says Travis, who was 5 at the time.
When he was 10, the family—Travis, his sister, mother and father—took three months off and drove from Colorado to Alaska, and the young Travis became “a fanatical salmon fisherman.” “That’s part of my personality, and my dad’s, too,” says Travis, now a professional runner, coach, and father of two, Lila, age 4, and Wyatt, age 6. “We catch on to something and really get into it.”
Travis credits his father’s example for paving his way into adventure racing and running, and Mark is quick to say that in his heyday as a runner, time management and preparation enabled him to excel in parenting, running, and work. “Looking back it doesn’t seem that difficult,” he says. “I generally got up at 4am and got to work before everyone else did. I ran every day at lunchtime for years and years, and came home early and got involved in all of the kids activities—the concerts and plays and sporting events.”
Both Macy men say being involved in their kids' lives was a top priority once they became fathers because “that’s what you have to do if you want to have kids who will talk to you when you get older,” says Mark. “And kids need you.”
In the Macy household, Travis followed his father’s footsteps into competitive, elite endurance athletics, while his sisters opted for other paths. Still, the family gathers regularly in the outdoors—at races, for camping or hunting trips—where they bond. “The Leadville 100 has become a family reunion for us,” says Travis. “This year we probably had 15 members of our family extended family there. It was a great opportunity to disconnect and be present with other people and have something that can give life meaning.”
Pro Tip: Don’t underestimate the value of simply exposing kids to adults “making themselves vulnerable and putting themselves on the line when the outcome is unknown, aka taking them to an ultra race,” says Travis. “At ultras, you might succeed or you might fail, and there’s a huge value in kids seeing someone doing that.” Better yet, keep pursuing your passions, mom and dad, and show kids it's possible to grow as an individual and still be a great parent.