Backstage at the Olympics: Jeff and Aly Pain Are Going for the Gold in Marriage
It’s tough being an Olympic athlete. It’s even tougher being married to one. In fact, Aly Pain has asked her husband Jeff, Canadian Silver Medalist Skeleton racer, for a divorce more than once in the last several years.
And yet today, their marriage is stronger than ever.
“I’m a ridiculously stubborn person,” says Aly, a public speaker, trainer, and one of the first 70 systems coaches to be certified by the Center for Right Relationship. “I don’t walk away from much. I’ll do what it takes. And there’s an essence of our marriage—something bigger and stronger than us—that wasn’t done, that said: you’re supposed to be together.”
And together, Jeff and Aly Pain have written a book, The Business of Marriage and Medals, about what they’ve learned.
“All of our messes and successes over a 14 year period,” says Aly. “Everything we did wrong and what we did right—consciously or unconsciously—so we can be here today as a team.”
When I reach Aly by phone at her hotel in downtown Vancouver, she sounds tired. She has driven with their two boys from Calgary a few days earlier. They’ve come to see their Dad, a man the CBC has called “one of the most celebrated skeleton athletes in Canadian history,” make his last Olympic run. And today’s the day.
Aly has mixed feelings.
“Joy, sadness, grief—blechhh!” she says. “Sometimes it’s everything all at once. There’s a lot of me that wants it to be over. And yet winning in Italy was wonderful. How many can say they’ve been in three Olympics and finished in the top ten in all three? I’m also sad for Jeff and can’t imagine what this is like for him.
“There can only be one winner—the ultimate measure of one’s success in sport. This is what he’s chosen.
“Until midnight tonight. Then he’s retired.”
The measure in sport doesn’t take into account the emotional and economic challenges Aly and Jeff Pain have faced. Only two percent of Canada’s Olympic athletes have kids.
“The Canadian Olympic Committee has never compiled statistics on mature athletes, and so have they’ve never really met their needs. The COC knew mature athletes were least pleased with funding but didn’t know why."
When a 20-year-old gets an Olympic contract, “it’s like winning the lottery,” says Aly. “They may still be living at home with their parents. But when you’re in your 30s and have a family, it’s poverty level.”
What is it like for their sons—Thomas, aged six and Kyle, who is it eight—to be here in Vancouver to see their Dad compete?
“They think it’s cool. They’re proud. It’s exciting—and yet I bet they’d by-pass all that to have had Dad home. He’s been away for three and a half years of their lives. It’s a double-edged sword. Whether they grow up hating it or loving it, this is their legacy. They deserve an opportunity to be at the track—to see this.”
“I don’t know,’ says Aly. “I can’t even imagine it. The book is certainly part of what’s next—the game we’re playing together on the same continent on the same stage. It’s been a way of dreaming up our new identity.”
And how did the book come about?
It began with a fight, really. Jeff was home for a few months, and they argued about household tasks—who did and did not do what. So they got out a big sheet of paper. Aly wrote down everything she did around the house. Jeff wrote down everything he did.
“My list was much longer,” says Aly. “We started to renegotiate.”
The Business of Marriage and Medals is, in fact, a business book. It’s about business in marriage and relationship in business.
“It’s only when we started seeing ourselves as a business that our marriage began to work,” says Aly. “Assigning roles, and concrete goals—that’s what we had to do—stop being willy-nilly and thinking it was going to work out. We had to hammer it out and write it down.”
Out of the breaking point came the solution.
“Our marriage has a big message about relationship,” she says. Especially now. “The divorce rate is higher than it’s ever been. Marriage is like a commodity. Businesses treat people like numbers. We’re forgetting the art of relationship: seeing and experiencing another person face to face in an ebbing, flowing balance.
“It’s not a you-against-me thing. It’s a ‘we’ thing. Put the issue out front. Be a ‘we’ and handle it.”
The challenges Aly Pain has faced in her marriage have enriched and deepened her professional life as a relationship systems coach. She finds she has far more compassion for the corporations and families she works with as they go through transitions.
“What they’re saying is exactly what I’m feeling,” she says. “I ask questions I might not have asked before. I know more. It’s a rich place, transition. I don’t find it scary. I like adventure.”
In the end, she says, “This isn’t’ just about Jeff being front stage and me and the kids backstage. It’s more than that. We’re a team, and we know that now.
“Everybody who’s been behind us and supported us—that’s how every relationship succeeds, with support and lots of cheering. We have more people behind us than we can possibly fathom. We haven not gotten here alone.”