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Family Life When Your Husband Is An Olympic Gold Medallist

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Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images.
When Mo Farah tumbled to the ground during the 10,000m at last month's Rio Olympics, tired-eyed viewers across the UK drew a sharp intake of breath. For a moment, those of us who had stayed up for the 1.30am race thought it was all over. Even his wife Tania, watching from the stands, thought he’d blown his chance of a third gold medal.

“I was crying my eyes out,” she tells Refinery29. “He’s fallen down in a race before, so I knew he was capable of getting back up, but last time someone beat him because the fall took so much out of him. It was like deja vu and I was convinced it was over – even after he got up.”

U.S. TV network NBC broadcasted her despair on camera for all to see – even splitting the screen between the pair at one point. “They caught my reaction when he went down and played it back in slow motion. I was like, ‘great’.”

But Mo went on to win against the odds and later in the week completed the “double double”, also winning the 5,000m (he’d already won both races in London), and becoming Britain’s most successful Olympic track and field athlete ever. His motivation through it all? Wanting to ensure that each of his four children had a gold medal of their own.

“I just wanna go home now and see my beautiful kids and I just wanna hang their medals around their necks,” he told the BBC in his post-race interview. “If I can achieve something in my career, it’s something for them, and that’s what drives me.”
Mo has had one hell of a career so far, but it hasn't been without sacrifice. For someone whose children mean the world, it’s difficult being away for months on end training and competing. When he is away for half the year, it’s Tania who is looking after the kids: Rihanna, 11, twins Aisha and Amani, four, and baby Hussein, who will be one in October.

Tania has been described as the “rock” behind Mo’s career, who holds the family together. “I don’t actually see myself that way,” she says. “I do what I can, and what’s necessary, but it’s a compliment because, obviously, he’s doing well. I’ll take it.”

There are downsides to this success, however, and being married to someone who is away so much can take its toll, particularly where parenting is concerned. “This summer I remember saying to Mo, ‘God, I’m hanging on for dear life, I need you to come home and help me out’, because I was getting ganged up on. With Rihanna being on the edge of puberty and all of that madness, and balancing the other three, it was getting overwhelming.”

They recently hired a live-in au pair for the first time to help with the childcare. "We really need it now. I think I've been too overwhelmed in the past," she says. "There have been a couple of occasions when I've locked myself in the bathroom to take some deep breaths and talk myself back into sanity."

While Mo being away may put a strain on the parenting side of things, when it comes to the couple's relationship, Tania says absence makes the heart grow fonder. "Our relationship has never taken a hit because of the time he’s away. If anything, it makes us appreciate each other more." And she knows long periods of training abroad – in Ethiopia at high altitude, for instance – are absolutely crucial for an athlete at the top of his game.

"People talk about it a lot," she adds. "Yes, it’s hard and of course it's a big sacrifice for both of us, but I don't see it as a big burden in the way a lot of people do. I love the fact people think I'm a hero for doing it. It's always been like that and we know it's absolutely necessary and part of the job, so we don't see it quite the same way."

The pair first met at a running club at their school in Feltham in Hounslow, west London, when Tania was 11 and Mo was 14 (she was a sprinter, while he has always preferred long distance). They remained friends for about a decade, drifting in and out of touch, before they got together in 2008 after Mo added her on Facebook. They met up and “sparks flew”, Tania says, which she didn’t expect.
Mo and Tania got married in 2010 and left London for Portland, Oregon, five-and-a-half years ago to be near the Nike Oregon Project, which is run by Mo’s American coach Alberto Salazar. Their family life is different in the States and "definitely better" than it was in the UK, Tania says. "It’s easier to have four kids there than in the UK and there are far more opportunities for kids to do stuff. I don't know if that's in general in America but certainly in Portland there is – after school clubs, social clubs, summer camps – if anything we’re spoilt for choice". Rihanna is a keen swimmer and gymnast, but hates running with a passion, Tania laughs.

Tania, on the other hand, has become an avid long-distance runner herself since taking it up after Hussein was born last year. Even she is surprised at how long it's taken her to get involved, having been with Mo for so long. She'll be running the Great North Run in Newcastle alongside Mo this Sunday, which will be her second half marathon – a huge achievement for someone who's been running for less than a year. But their children are less impressed. To them, competitive running is "standard procedure", Tania says. "I did a local fun run in Portland and one of them asked me what channel she could watch it on! She thinks its totally normal for everyone to race on TV – talk about high standards!"

But surely her proximity to one of the greatest British athletes must give her an edge? Not necessarily, she tells us. "People think I've got it good because I can just ask him for tips and his greatness will rub off on me, but it's not as easy as that." If anything, Mo often gives advice that doesn't apply to a "normal person". A week before her 10k fun run in Portland, she asked him how hard she should train over the coming days. "He said, 'you don't want to go too hard, just do a couple of four-mile runs today – one in the morning, one in the evening' – for him that’s an easy day!"
Another unavoidable part of being married to a four-time Olympic gold medalist, aside from the otherworldly running tips, is the media attention. After Mo's double 5,000m and 10,000m wins in London 2012, the media's intrusion into the family's lives was "overwhelming" and it was a relief to return to the U.S., where Mo was relatively unknown. However, they've noticed a change in the few weeks since Rio. The couple were surprised by how much NBC featured Mo in their Olympic coverage and, as a result, he's getting recognised a lot more there now.

"In the UK he walks around in a hood because he can't blend in easily and is so recognisable with his bald head and smile," Tania says, and it's becoming necessary for him to disguise himself in the U.S. "He got stopped at Portland airport on our way out here [London], which hasn't happened before. We’re not used to that in America. It’s nice but it’s weird."
Luckily the kids haven't been exposed to too many flashing lights and shifty paparazzi yet, having spent so many years in the U.S., which Tania says is a blessing. The couple want to shield them from the limelight for as long as possible. "I want them to live like normal people – we didn't grow up with any of that. I don't want it to dictate how they see things and how they act."

Tania and Mo certainly didn't grow up with "any of that", and neither were they brought up with anything comparable to the privilege their kids now consider normal. Mo was brought up in war-torn Somalia before moving to Britain at the age of eight and could barely speak any English. Tania's upbringing was more typical, having been born and brought up in London to parents who were a travel agent and a secretary. The couple want their kids to grow up to be humble and know how advantaged they are.

But it's a constant struggle, Tania says, balancing giving the kids the privileges their parents didn't have, while letting them know the importance of hard work and that not everything is given to you on a plate. Mo's success has brought with it lucrative endorsements and sponsorship deals over the years, from companies including Nike, Virgin Media, Lucozade, Bupa and, of course, Quorn (you can't have missed those adverts).

"That's the hardest part about raising kids when you've got success behind you," Tania adds. "It's easy to give them everything and sometimes I find myself doing that, just because you want to give your kids everything, who doesn't? And it's hard because they expect things sometimes."

Mo is the stricter parents, she says, which makes sense considering the self-discipline required to spend hours pounding the tracks and make so many personal sacrifices. Religion also plays a role in the Farah household – the couple are both Muslim – and is another connection they've shared since they met at school. They're not devout but they don't eat pork and try to pray as much as possible, although it's not always easy to find time in their frenzied daily routines. "We still have the same core beliefs and values," Tania says, and they share an outlook on life.
This extends to how the couple perceives each of their roles as parents. Tania doesn't consider their relationship as defined by stereotypical gender roles and the pair make most decisions together. "He definitely doesn't think he’ll decide what's best for us because he’s a man. In fact, he's quite happy to let me decide often because he’s such a laid-back guy." Tania is looking forward to a time when Mo is around more and they can spend more time together as a family, but she jokes that she won't know what to do with the extra pair of hands.

So when is that likely to be? Tania says not even Mo knows whether he'll compete at the Tokyo Games in 2020, as athletes' bodies can change so much each year – especially when they run 120 miles per week. However, despite widespread doubt in the media that Mo will "put his family first" and won't compete, Tania wouldn't put it past him.

"I don't think even he knows how long he’s got left, but I wouldn't rule out Tokyo just because I know him so well," she says, adding that she can't see anybody being able to outdo Mo within the next four years, considering that it's taken him 15 years to get to where he is now. Highlighting her confidence in her husband, she continues: "I genuinely think Mo could go and do it again in Tokyo. Maybe not the double 5,000m and 10,000m, but I think he could certainly get one gold.

"He’s got one gold left in him I think, but it really depends on how his body holds up. Even without that, I think he’s got a future in running – whether that be coaching, mentoring or trying to source new talent." After a successful shot at commentating for NBC in the U.S. on the World Indoor Championships, she could even envisage him becoming a pundit.

As for her own career, Tania has big aspirations that she hopes might soon finally come to fruition. "This might sound crazy because I'm 30, but I've said to Mo I really want to be a lawyer." She started studying law at evening classes as a teenager while pregnant with Rihanna, but the circumstances prevented her from being able to commit. "I'm glad it didn't happen because things would be different if I'd gone down that road," she acknowledges.

While she admits Mo's career will always be the priority, "because he's the more successful one and he supports us as a family," Tania admires couples who take it in turns to focus on their careers. "There's so much I could do and that I want to do when Mo retires. There will come a point when it's time for him to take a back seat, and when it happens I'll be there ready to take over."
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