Mom of a Medalist

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the September 2016 Issue

Olympic athletes spend countless hours in training. Behind every Olympic athlete is that someone who invested even more hours in raising, training, watching and waiting. Lots of waiting. For swimmer, David Plummer, it was his mom. 

Kathy Plummer, mother of Olympian David PlummerKathy Plummer is so proud of her son’s accomplishments. She’s amazed that the simple act of fostering his interest in swimming led him to the Rio Olympics.

“We had David in the pool from the time he was a baby,” Kathy said. “David was the third of four boys, and his older brothers swam, so he got dragged along. In junior high he started thinking seriously about going to the Olympics someday. In high school and college, he started competing successfully.” 

At 30-years-old, David’s the oldest first-time Olympic swimmer in over 100 years. This year was his fourth attempt at making the swim team. In 2012, his missed by twelve-hundredths of a second, and he wasn’t sure he would try again. With encouragement from his wife, David decided to give it one last shot.

In Rio, David competed in the 100-meter backstroke and the 4x100-meter medley relay—winning bronze in the backstroke and gold in the relay. Kathy never dreamed that she would be able to witness the win herself. As a single mom, working as an occupational therapy assistant in Northwest Oklahoma City, she never expected to make the expensive trip. Although family members are able to travel with the athletes, no financial assistance is provided.

This year, thanks to crowd fundraising from friends, family and David’s fans, Kathy was able to attend a few days of the competition with seven other family members, including her two older sons and David’s wife. It was an unexpected blessing.

“David was tickled to have us there. Being a professional swimmer isn’t the same as being a paid football or basketball player,” Kathy said. “Only the high-profile athletes get sponsorships, so David and his wife worked hard to afford this Olympic dream while supporting two young children. He probably hasn’t done as much training as some, because he’s working around his high school coaching schedule.”

Attending the Rio Olympics as a spectator was an adventure in itself. Fortunately, Kathy’s cousin and her husband live in Brazil, so they served as translator and tour guide.

Each day, the group rode on the new train then caught a bus that took them fairly close to the swimming arena in Baha. A highlight for the family was watching David “be a celebrity” as he was interviewed by various media outlets.

David Plummer divingThe family was able to sit in the stands and watching David swim in the 100-meter semi rounds and then the finals. “We just screamed and yelled the whole race,” Kathy said. “It was pretty emotional, but that much adrenaline really takes it out of you. I wonder how the athletes manage that much excitement multiple days in a row.”

Despite their supporters, Olympic athletes actually have very little contact with family and fans. Kathy’s family only had a few minutes in the stands to congratulate David on his bronze medal before he was whisked away. Their other short, face-to-face meeting occurred on a sidewalk. “It’s tough on the family, because we are his support system,” Kathy said. “It’s a bummer that we couldn’t see him more, but I’m going to say that it is for the best, too. The athletes don’t need the distraction, they need to concentrate.”

Exhausted, Kathy returned home to watch the rest of the Olympics on television. Those few precious moments with David in Rio will sustain her until she is able to again see him in person. Although David grew up in Oklahoma, he currently lives in Minneapolis, where he coaches high school swimming.  

As a mom, she’s more pleased by his accomplishments as swim coach than she is by his medals. “By coaching kids to swim, he’s changed his perspective from the individual athlete to focusing on the team effort. He’s thinking outside of himself,” Kathy said.

David Plummer with wife and mother at the Olympics in RioKathy, too, coached swimming and lifeguarding when her boys were young. It was a way to keep herself busy at the pool, “while the kids were doing their thing.” She occasionally hears from her former students about how their life was affected by her teaching.

“That’s the part of teaching that you have no idea about until a student comes back and tells you that you made an impact,” Kathy said. “One of the best things that happened in Rio was at the NBC media center. They surprised David with a live reading of letters written by some of the swimmers that he’s coached. Everyone was in tears, hearing how he’s impacted their lives.”

“That’s the kind of thing that tears at your heartstrings. It’s not only about being an Olympian, but it‘s more about the things he’s learned on his journey to help other people. That’s what makes you feel like you’ve done a good job with your child.”

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