Canada's Olympians: Jeff Pain, Skeleton

PUTTING THE GAMES FIRST, The singular focus of an Olympic athlete can take a toll on a marriage

Aly Pain loves her husband in his uniform. For years she has asked him to wear it—a spandex one-piece that leaves nothing to the imagination—on Valentine’s Day. Alas, Jeff Pain, skeleton racer and Torino silver medallist, has barely spent a Valentine’s at home since he started competing in 1995. His success on the international circuit has meant penury and conjugal strain. And despite her husband’s impressive physique, Aly has wanted out of the marriage three times since their 1997 wedding, at which Jeff—with impressive prescience—chose AC/DC’s Highway to Hell for their first dance.

She first asked him to leave not long after the cost of underwriting his exploits on European skeleton runs forced her to a Calgary pawnshop. “I had already pawned some watches and, ironically, my 1988 Winter Olympic special edition Walkman,” she writes in a self-published book she has co-authored with Jeff, The Business of Marriage & Medals, set for release after the Olympics. “It had to be something that cash converters would see as value and take. That meant electronics, tools, cookware.” For a time they lived on just $20,000 a year, from which Jeff financed his forays to skeleton hotspots in Germany, France and Austria. Meanwhile, Aly remained home and alone, her job repairing medical equipment barely making a dent in the couple’s debt load and expenses. One worried friend pushed a wad of twenties into her hand: “It was enough to buy food for me for two weeks.”

Yet she maintains the couple’s marital woes were less about money than her husband’s overweening devotion to his sport. As early as the couple’s honeymoon in Australia, she writes, Jeff’s monomania rankled. Counting what money remained them on their final night in Sydney—would it be enough for one last romantic meal?—Aly turned on him: “I told Jeff we wouldn’t always have to plan so carefully if he didn’t always take what he wanted first.” Later, during a 22-hour flight home during which they did not speak, Aly experienced an ugly epiphany: “His thing came first,” she writes. “I sat there thinking, ‘I hate you so much.’ ”

Things got no easier after the birth of the couple’s first son four years into the marriage (Jeff is one of a small fraction of Canadian Olympians who are married with children). He remained home off-season but continued training and worked long hours as a landscape designer to keep the family afloat and fund his athletic ambitions. Meanwhile, Aly had a second boy. At times the burden overwhelmed her. “I’m asking you to quit,” she once told him. “I cannot do this anymore.” She confesses she “had seething anger, abhorred what Jeff was doing and eventually, Jeff himself,” adding that she saw her husband as “an insolent, selfish fool and told him so.”

Now a Calgary life coach, she admits that for a time she “felt treated like the bottom of his shoe. If it screamed loud enough, he’d look at it, but that didn’t mean he’d stop walking on it.”
It’s a harsh portrait of a man whose single-mindedness has kept him at the top of his sport for nearly a decade. Determined to become an Olympian, he took up skeleton before it became a permanent Olympic event—gambling on that possibility “like buying a junior mining stock,” he jokes. In the early days he compensated for meagre government funding by selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and bankrolled his first trip to Europe selling a penny stock that happened to do well. He soon racked up impressive results—he is both a two-time world champion and a two-time World Cup champion—glory that culminated in a bittersweet silver victory in Turin after his chief Canadian rival, Duff Gibson, slipped past him for the gold.

An equipment failure that caused his steel runners to buckle beneath his weight kept Jeff from making the World Cup team in 2007, a devastating reversal of fortune for a competitor who’d only just won World Cup gold the year before. He considered quitting but recently told Maclean’s: “My kids watched me win a medal and then not get on the team. It’s not a good reason to quit.”

It was his two sons that were foremost in his mind when he sought out his hero, golfer Jack Nicklaus, asking: “Do your kids hate you?” He knows his boys will someday read the book and understand “why mummy was tired and grumpy and why daddy was never there.” He calls the details of his early marriage “embarrassing, shameful,” but adds: “It’s the truth.” Aly hopes that truth will help others in marriages where one spouse is going for gold or any other sort of excellence—“elite performance lives in so many genres,” she says—though it’s probably lucky for Jeff that his wife does not believe in divorce. Her relationship to her husband’s success remains complex. “I hated how it happened, but he was the best in the world at it,” she writes. “How do I argue with that?”

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