Dear Dad, Dear Coach

My dad, Lee Allen, was a remarkable human being. Quiet and reserved, he was a two-time Olympic wrestler, arguably the most grueling sport in the world. A self-made man in every sense of the word, he grew up with nothing but the support of his family, working for everything he had.

My father was born in Kansas and due to the Dust Bowl, his family moved to Oregon when he was a baby. In Oregon, his family became strawberry farmers.  The days were filled with hard labor that somehow brought families closer together. The youngest of four siblings, my dad quickly learned to be tough. Their form of fun was to climb a tree, have a sibling chop it down, and ride it all the way to the ground. This rough toughness created a strong will in my dad. He worked his way through college to pay for his tuition, simultaneously wrestling at college practices and the club practices at the Multnomah Wrestling Club. In 1956, he made his first Olympic team in Freestyle wrestling at the age of 21. His second Olympic team was made four years later in Greco-Roman. At the time, he had broken his femur and could not practice take downs, so he became proficient at throws and thus a top Olympic contender in Greco-Roman.

Dad was a feminist before it was cool– he believed that women were just as capable as men in wrestling. My sister and I started wrestling because our dad knew the benefits of sport. He knew the physical and mental challenges demanded by wrestling are the benefits that create resilience in human characteristics. Knowing women did not always have the opportunities for these lessons, he used the sport to provide these opportunities. Our dad slowly introduced us to the sport and nurtured our talent over the years. He helped create an environment that allowed us to wrestle when we wanted, and quit if it really didn't suit us. He was Dad first, Coach second.

His coaching style led my sister and I to dedicate the majority of our lives to wrestling and led us to both become two-time US Olympic Trial place winners, while also winning many world age group and international medals. Some would say it would be hard to have your father with you through each step of career; as a child, in high school, collegiately, and as a senior-level athlete. However, our relationship and his coaching style helped us reach a new level as a partnership, and not as a father hoping to live through his daughters.

He created an environment fostering guidance from my own ambitions, on and off the mat and was the best at knowing when he needed to be my coach versus when to be my father. In an instant, he was able to teach me technique, and switch to guiding me through life's struggles. If I was feeling overwhelmed with wrestling, his answer wasn’t to force me through a practice. His answer was, “Okay, then take a break.” He knew that the only way to help foster the deep kind of love it takes to keep wrestling until you’re nearly 30, had to be entirely the athlete’s desire. Pushing me into practices and competitions when I was in an unhappy state of mind, would be a detriment to my potential career, and Dad knew that. This is not say that it was always a perfect situation. He and my mother were so passionate about developing women's wrestling in the United States, it often invaded family time. Fortunately for them, my sister and I have become just as politically-involved and continue to push for the education of wrestling among younger female athletes, serving on various boards and committees.

Just as I moved to Colorado Springs to live at the Olympic Training Center, my father's health began to decline. It was difficult for him to travel and this meant he could not always physically be coaching in my corner. This certainly posed some challenges. I questioned whether I was doing the right thing by staying in Colorado. I felt guilty I wasn’t at home with him. Was it worth the training benefits to be away from Dad in such a delicate state? I still don’t know.  However, he did enjoy the challenge of coaching and advising from afar and never argued whether I needed to stay in Colorado to train. Throughout my wrestling career, he always encouraged me to learn from other coaches and take opportunities when presented. He did not have a controlling philosophy, which the parent-child coaching dynamic often creates. By encouraging my independence, he taught me to be in control of my personal growth. I wasn't ever dependent on one voice to help me through a match. My father knew these lessons would transfer into real-life skills.

Dad passed two months after the 2012 Olympic Trials. I struggled immensely with the decision to continue wrestling. Wrestling and family, were the same definition to me. They simultaneously existed together and without my father, I couldn’t define what wrestling was. It took years of struggle and work with an amazing sports psychologist and coaches to again find my love for the sport. I finally found the  love for wrestling that I believe my father had. Undying, steadfast, understanding. The love that wrestling brings together mind, body, spirit, and community.

Wrestling has given me a confidence and empowerment that will be with me for the rest of my life. It is a feeling I could only have created myself, inspired with my father’s support. My wish is for more fathers to learn the importance of fostering and supporting their daughters in a sport, but then allowing them to discover that deep love on their own. It is an immensely long and difficult journey to earn an Olympic berth or Olympic gold. It is an accomplishment that few on this planet can say they have achieved. I have seen too many fathers and coaches push their athletes past their limits. The pressure they create may causes an athlete to fall out of love for their sport.

Every daughter wants their father to be proud of them. I know my father is proud of me if I win Olympic Gold or if I take last place. To a father, it should be all the same because your daughter is the same bright, amazing woman you helped create. I am eternally grateful for everything my father taught me while he was here and the lessons I am still learning. He gave me the opportunities to love something that fosters community and giving. His goal wasn’t for me to win, his goal was for me to become who I am intended to be.

This story originally appeared on The Lady Athlete