Note: This is the first post in an ongoing monthly series that recognizes those moms who epitomize what it means to be a Renaissance Mom.
** I first met Nikki Stone on the campus of Union College in 1991. We were both psychology majors and shared a few mutual friends, but all I really knew about her was that she attended Union because it had a trimester schedule so she could take the winters off to ski competitively, and she was dating a hockey player. I was reintroduced to Nikki again in 1998 in my living room as I sat in awe in front of the television watching her flip and twist her way to win an Olympic gold in inverted aerial skiing. “I went to school with her,” I told my husband over and over again. “I had no idea that’s what she was doing all those winters she left school.” Five years ago I reconnected with Nikki again, via Facebook, and used her as source for an article I wrote about how skiing had changed over the years, and the best way to teach kids how to ski. That’s when I learned she was about to release a book “When Turtles Fly: The Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out” within the year. I watched and waited for the book, kept tabs on Nikki’s career as a speaker and writer, and finally tracked her down again a few months ago when I came up with the idea to feature other Renaissance Moms on this blog. I learned that there was so much more to Nikki than I could even gather from our brief interactions in the past and through reading her book So let me introduce you to our first featured Renaissance Mom, Nikki Stone, Olympic gold medalist, author, motivational speaker, and MOM.
“I knew that I wanted children someday, but the thought did scare me, so I always managed to put it off every time my husband brought up the notion. I realized I was being a hypocrite and wasn’t taking the risks I so proudly claimed. So the next time my husband brought up the topic of kids, I decided I would just go for it and take the plunge. Ten months later, I gave birth to a little girl who changed my life and never allowed me to question these big decisions again.
At 41 years old, some might refer to Nikki Stone as a Super Woman of sorts. Nikki has conquered a debilitating fear of heights and launched herself five stories into the air with skis on, flipping and twisting her body in ways some may think impossible, to become one of the best women aerial skiers in the world. She has fought through a crippling back injury, which ten doctors said was impossible, and returned to the sport in 1997 after taking a year off to recuperate, capturing the first-ever aerial skiing Olympic gold in 1998 for the United States. Nikki also graduated summa cum laude from Union College in 1997, completed a two-year masters program in sports psychology in just over a year at the University of Utah, and currently travels around the world giving motivational speeches to athletes, corporations, and the like (something she herself could never dreamed of as shy young girl growing up in Wakefield, Massachusetts). And in November of last year Nikki released her first book, a five year labor of love, “When Turtles Fly.”
But according to Nikki, none of the above feats compare to the challenge she undertook on May 28, 2008 — motherhood.
“As an athlete you have to be selfish particularly to compete at a high level. There’s a lot of thinking about yourself,” Nikki said during an April 24 interview. “I think my biggest concern (with having children) was that I’d still continue to be that way, so I kept putting it off and putting it off. I was worried about my life changing. I was worried that everything would be taken away.”
But through the stories of other athletes Nikki heard while researching her book, Steve Young in particular, she realized that what having children would add to her and husband Michael Spencer’s life, would far outweigh what might be lost.
“The thing that really hit me, and I included this in the book, was seeing Steve Young (legendary NFL quarterback) retiring and him saying, ‘The thing I regret is my kids not being able to see me play,’ and his assistant coach saying, ‘You know what? It’s going to be nothing compared to seeing them play,'” Nikki recalled. “It’s so true and so accurate. I mean I always say that they’re my real accomplishments. They’re my real gold medal.”
Of course, Nikki is talking about her daughter Zali, who will turn four later this month, and her younger brother, Zealand, who joined the Stone/Spencer family in August of last year.
“It’s funny to think about the thing I worked my whole life at (winning a gold in the Olympics), and the thing that only one in a million accomplish, and I’m more proud and happier by the thing that everyone can accomplish,” Nikki admitted.
But, like all mothers, Olympic champions or not, Nikki has faced her own challenges in raising her two young children. From finding the time to squeeze in exercise and curbing her own competitiveness when watching Zali participate in sports, to battling parenting differences with her spouse and instilling honorable values within her young children, Nikki struggles with how to do it all — and do it all well. In those moments, Nikki relies on her own internal voice and values instilled in her at the very young age of 5, when her mother first told her about the Turtle Effect.
“She explained to me that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to be soft on the inside, I had to have a hard shell, and I had to be willing to stick my neck out,” Nikki writes in “When Turtles Fly.”
That bit of maternal wisdom has served Nikki well in the past, and now it is shaping her life as a mom of two. Without realizing it, Nikki is always providing opportunities for daughter Zali to develop that soft inside (passion and focus) and tough outer shell (commitment, confidence, and the ability to overcome adversities), and she has seen Zali stick her neck out and take chances more than once.
From setting aside a piggy bank for charitable donations to organizations of Zali’s choosing, to letting her decide weather she will hit the slopes or gymnastic equipment like mom or pursue something entirely different altogether, Nikki is letting Zali find her own passion and soft inside, despite what pressures others may be trying to put on her.
“She needs to choose it all herself. I’m going to introduce her to everything. Everyone says I have her doing too many things … but I want her to do too many things, because I don’t want it to be something I chose,” Nikki said, later adding, “My concern is that everyone else is putting pressures on her that I’ve been trying not to. It doesn’t matter if she can’t do something. I’ve told her it’s OK. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”
But Nikki is no fool. She sees that hard outer shell developing around Zali already, and she has seen her daughter take risks and come out the other side victorious, so Nikki knows that she very well could be following in her own mother’s footsteps and watching her daughter pursue Olympic dreams in the future.
“She is me and I worry that when she is a teenager we are going to butt heads. … There are so many things that I see her doing that were me,” she said with a laugh, and adding that she grateful to have Zali’s mellow counterpart, Zealand, though at 8 months old he is already showing his parents his athletic side.
So, sometime begrudgingly, Nikki steps back and let’s Zali take the risks, and she will do the same with Zealand.
“I don’t worry like some parents if she’s up on a wall and people say, ‘Oh, she’s going to hurt herself.’ She’s not going to hurt herself that badly,” Nikki said. “I mean I worry about being by a pool or her being off in a store alone, the extremely dangerous things. But for her to feel a little freedom herself and to feel like she’s sticking her neck out herself, it’s valuable to have those things.”
“Zali came to see me in a wheelchair basketball gam. It was a fundraiser,” Nikki said.
According to Nikki, Zali told her she was scared to go because she didn’t think her mom was going to do well and then her team didn’t win.
“It was more important for me that she saw that more than anything else, because I had such a good time and it was a fundraiser and it was a great fun event,” Nikki said. “I didn’t get one basket in, and I didn’t care. I want her to see that that’s OK, too. As long as you are making an effort and working for a good cause, that’s what’s most important.”
Nikki also believes, although difficult to put into practice at times, it is important to teach her kids (and in turn, herself) not to take life so seriously all the time. From being late from time to time to give her children the extra time needed “to do something myself” to allowing them to make a mess in the kitchen, Nikki realizes that sometimes “you just have to let that stuff go.”
“I have to let them have fun,” she said. “I have to let them not be so serious about stuff.”
And though Nikki finds time to have fun, craft, attend playgroups, and spend quality time with her children, in between traveling to speaking engagements, writing, spending time with her husband, and maintaing her amazing athletic physique (see photo below borrowed from her Huffington post blog), even she admits that despite her stellar ability to multitask (i.e. workout on the elliptical, browse and answer e-mails, and tend to a sleeping baby in the carrier on her back all at the same time), even Nikki Stone can “get lost at times.”
“I was thinking about it yesterday. If you had told my daughter that you were going to do an interview with me because I was a Renaissance Mom, she’d be like ‘No, she’s not,” Nikki said. “I have my bad moments, too, and it’s OK.
“I think a Renaissance Mom is the same thing as the top athletes — they’re not the ones who don’t fail, they just keep picking themselves up. I think the most important aspect (of parenting) is that it’s OK to make mistakes, we just have to learn from them.”
Nikki lives in Park City Utah with her husband Michael Spencer, and two children Zali and Zealand. Learn more about Nikki on her website at nikkistone.com. Nikki’s book “When Turtles Fly” can be purchased online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Borders.