By Kate Snow
Rock Center Correspondent
As I walked out through the sliding doors to the backyard, the first thing I saw was the zip line across the swimming pool. Wow my kids would love that. My mom radar, of course, immediately saw the danger—the zip line extended over a concrete deck around the pool. One fall on that and a child could get hurt. But, on the other hand, if the kids get some joy out of the zip line, why not let them swoop out over the pool and plunge in the water?
In the time I spent with the Welsch family at their home in Alvin, Texas, I found myself having several internal debates such as that one. Caution vs. thrill. Risk vs. reward.
Kaytlynn Welsch is 12 years old. Her sister, Heather, is 10—and they’re both phenomenal endurance runners. They are able to dart across tricky off-road terrain filled with ravines, rocks and roots.
Most weekends, they compete in back-to-back races on Saturday and Sunday. Both Kaytlynn and Heather compete in races against adults -- and usually beat the grown-ups.
I run for exercise. I like to pretend I’m in decent shape. But out on the girls’ middle school track I might as well have been standing still. The girls dash past me within seconds, laughing all the way. They are fast. I mean, really, really fast.
Watch Kate Snow's full report on the Welsch sisters on Friday, Feb. 8 at 10pm/9CDT on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams
Heather and Kaytlynn clearly have a lot of talent. The sisters told me again and again that they love running. It’s their passion. They dream of running in the Olympics one day. I’m convinced they would run—and fast—even if their dad didn’t set up races for them every weekend. It’s hard to imagine that you could make a kid run that far, if she didn’t want to.
Experts on both sides of this debate agree that young runners should be assessed on a case by case basis. There are few children who run the distances the Welsch sisters do, so they’re charting an unknown path.
The Welschs’ doctors say they are healthy and haven’t experienced any joint problems or stress fractures. They’re watching their skeletal growth and what might happen when they hit puberty. Their orthopedist worries that they shouldn’t run races back to back on weekends and would like to see them train more during the week; injuries and burn-out are always a possibility. But for right now, these girls seem to love competing in races, especially against each other.
I wouldn’t want to be judged for my own parenting or coaching skills (or a lack thereof), so I don’t think it’s ever appropriate for me to judge another parent. But meeting the Welsch sisters certainly got me thinking about my own kids and what I might do if I were in their parents’ shoes.
What’s a parent to do? Do you encourage your child’s love of a sport? Or do you rein it in and deny them their dream? The Welsch parents will tell you they’re just trying to encourage their kids to do their best, and are trying to find a balance somewhere in the middle. They say that although the girls are serious while they’re racing, the rest of the time, they’re regular suburban kids. They text their friends, climb trees, and chase the local ice cream truck.
I’m glad I had a chance to meet the family. I’m also glad that my own two kids seem to be average athletes—not prodigies. No offense to my Zack and Abby, but I’d rather be able to outrun you for a while.
Editor's Note: Kate Snow's full report airs Friday, Feb. 8 at 10pm/9CDT on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.