Headlines are filled with stories of crazy sports parents who push their kids to the breaking point and lose all perspective. But for a parent whose child is dedicated to a sport – and maybe even darn good at it – how do you tow the line between supporting your child’s athletic ability and not going overboard? How do you NOT become one of those nutjobs that takes all of the joy out of your child’s passion? And how do you balance the demands of having a star athlete with the daily realities of everyday life?
Here, four moms behind high-level area athletes tell us about the demands of their child’s athletics as well as the benefits reaped from the time, cost and commitment required for their child to excel. They share the good, the bad and the ugly about bringing up a champion.
“Believe in yourself. Have faith. Keep your head up.”
Cheryl Davis of West Bloomfield thinks that her daughter Meryl is perhaps better known for her recent Dancing With the Stars Season 18 win than her ice dancing Olympic gold medal. Either way, she considers her daughter’s recent accomplishments surreal – not to mention a long time coming. Meryl, 27, first hit the ice at age 3 on the lake on which her family lived.
“It would freeze over, and the whole family would go out and ice skate,” Cheryl recalls. “She loved it. She loves the cold.”
By 5 Meryl was taking private lessons, and by age 8 she was competing regularly as a single. “When she met Charlie (White) and made the switch to ice dancing, that’s when she really got serious about skating,” Cheryl recalls.
By the time she was in middle school, Meryl was practicing every day after school and on Saturday. It was a challenging schedule, but one that worked for her.
“She’s a very active person,” Cheryl notes. “She paces when she’s not skating.”
As Meryl and Charlie progressed in their sport, the travel demands increased to the point where she missed seven to 10 days of school each month during the season, which runs from October through March.
“She had to be very detail oriented,” Cheryl says. “She asked a ton of questions and made up any assignments she missed.”
Despite her demanding training and travel schedule, Meryl still maintained an active social life.
“We encouraged her to go to parties and to be involved in school activities like the talent show and to attend her prom,” Cheryl says. “We knew the importance of her being part of a group.”
To make sure her younger son Clayton didn’t feel like he was living in his sister’s shadow, Cheryl made extra efforts to spend time with him. And when mother and daughter traveled for competitions, Cheryl’s husband Paul used their time away to plan some extra father-son time.
“Clayton and his dad had bonding time,” she explains. “They ate out. They skied together. It was special time for them.”
Upon reflection, Cheryl thinks that her son, while younger than Meryl by three years, is perhaps wiser than his famous sister.
“She is bright, but ice skaters live like moles,” she says. “He has more everyday experience.”
A new challenge for Cheryl will be helping her daughter acclimate to life after the Olympics.
“I think it’s more difficult for Meryl now than for me,” Cheryl admits. “I still have the life I’ve always had. Meryl has been so scheduled since she was little. It was all day, every day. Now what? She has so much energy.”
Meryl will continue to support her daughter as she finishes her degree at the University of Michigan, where she is majoring in anthropology, and in whatever professional endeavors she next tackles. She’s confident the lessons a life on the ice have afforded her will help her on her way.
“This sport has taught our kids that disappointment is part of the journey,” Cheryl notes. “It has taught them to believe in themselves, to have faith and to never give up.”
“You learn as much from failure as from success.”
For many high-performance athletes, the pinnacle of their endeavors is an Olympic gold medal. It’s a feat to which few can lay claim. But for local ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, it was a dream realized when they skated near perfect performances at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and earned top honors.
Jacqui White of Bloomfield Hills is one of the moms behind the medal – the chauffeur, financier and confidante who knows well the glamorous and unglamorous aspects of raising a champion. Charlie first hit the ice at age 3 when Jacqui and her husband, Charlie Sr., were looking for a family activity to do with their son and his four older siblings.
“He really liked it,” recalls Jacqui, who herself grew up ice skating on the canals of Belle Isle. “So I signed him up for a mom-and-tot ice skating class at the rink in Berkley. The sole goal of the class was for each child to learn how to get up by him or herself after falling down.” When the rink closed for the summer, Charlie was still itching to hit the ice. Jacqui came upon a flier for the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Township.
“I discovered then that we had a world-renowned skating club in our area,” she says.
She enrolled Charlie in a learn-to-skate program, and he never looked back. By age 8, Charlie was playing travel hockey and competing in ice dance with his partner Meryl.
“We had no idea when we started him in ice skating lessons that he would compete at nationals or the Olympics. We were just looking for something fun and recreational.”
Unlike many competitive ice skaters, Charlie attended school full-time while training. When competitions required out-of-town travel, Jacqui and Charlie would meet with his teachers to discuss how he could keep up with his studies from the road. “Thank God he was born in the computer age. He was able to submit many papers online.”
School was always the priority. “Meryl’s parents were on the same page, thankfully,” Jacqui notes. “We saw how many people lost perspective. We didn’t want that to happen. We didn’t want ice skating to take over.”
Charlie always maintained an active social life in addition to skating, school and violin lessons. And at times, it did cause him stress.
“He and I had many conversations. I was checking for cracks in the egg that it might be too much. I’d remind him that it was his life. He got to call the shots. He knew he never had to do something to make us happy. I certainly had plenty of other work to do!”
When in 2006, fellow ice dancers Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin competed at the Winter Olympics, Charlie and Meryl felt they had what it takes to shoot for that same goal.
“They thought, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,’” White recalls. “Charlie and Meryl felt they were moving in on Ben and Tanith’s skill level.”
Still, the road to the Olympics is not easy, and disappointments were not uncommon.
“Thankfully Charlie is a really positive person,” White says. “You almost have to be. It’s a very unforgiving sport. You’re as good as your last competition. You’ll give up if you’re too hard on yourself.”
Instead, Jacqui encouraged Charlie to use disappointment as an opportunity to learn, and the lessons paid off. In February, Jacqui saw her son reach his lifelong goal.
“There are no words invented for the feeling of seeing your son win an Olympic medal,” she says. “I can still see their faces when they finished their programs. That image will resonate in my heart for the rest of my life. It’s a glorious feeling of happiness. They put their heart and soul into this.”
The lessons ice skating has taught her son, family and herself are many.
“I take time for myself while traveling for work. I visited Niagara Falls (on my Bucket List) while on a business trip.”
A former collegiate softball player, Kim Hemphill of Woodhaven is competitive by nature. Her 17-year-old son LaFranz and daughter Kaila, 13, have inherited their mom’s athletic prowess. LaFranz is a star on his high school’s football team and in early talks with college recruiters; his little sister competes in two sports a season with her eye on an eventual athletic scholarship.
“She knows more about the athletic scholarship process as an eighth grader than most adults do,” says Kim.
Despite Kaila’s young age, an athletic scholarship is not out of the realm of possibility, her mom maintains. Kaila has been playing soccer since age of 4 and has competed on a travel soccer team for the past four years. In July she traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to compete in the Junior Olympics for track, and returned to jump into volleyball and fall soccer. It’s a tight schedule for sure, acknowledges Kim, but one that the family has come to know and actually appreciate.
“My kids need a schedule to get things accomplished. They’re procrastinators, and a schedule keeps them motivated.”
But to make it all happen, Kim, a single mother, relies heavily on help from a network of other sports parents.
“The saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is so true,” she says. “I work full time and travel overnight at least once a week.”
An elaborate carpool schedule ensures Kaila gets where she needs to be, and Kim always makes good on her promise to be at her daughter’s soccer games.
“I made a promise to my kids a while back that I would do whatever I could to be at the games for their primary sport,” she says. “For Kaila, that’s soccer. For LaFranz, that’s football. I’ve only had to miss one of his games.”
The demands of a year-round athletic schedule are not lost on Kim – who makes it clear to her children that, at any point, they can say enough is enough.
“When it gets to a point where it’s not fun for them, we’re done,” she says. “I talk with Kaila all the time about it, and she’s not at that point. I don’t know that she’ll ever be.”
Kaila’s own drive to compete is illustrated by her desire and willingness to practice when practice isn’t required.
“Kaila chose to attend optional Sunday and spring break practices completely on her own,” Kim says. “It’s her nature.”
Despite her busy after-school sports schedule, Kaila maintains a 3.5 GPA, which has earned her a spot on her school’s chapter of the Junior National Honor Society. The eighth grader also participates on her school’s student council.
“Sports have brought my children so many things,” Hemphill says. “Sports have shown them friendships. Sports have given them experience dealing with conflict and working as a team, and sports have taught them patience.
“There are 40 to 50 other kids on my son’s football team. I tell him that chances are he won’t get along with all of them. Being part of a team has helped teach him and Kaila patience with self and others.”
But should the day come when one of her children says they have had enough, Hemphill insists she’d be OK with it.
“Sure, I’d miss going to their sporting events,” Hemphill says. “There’s a core group of us parents who have grown up together in many ways. But I wouldn’t want either of my kids to do something that isn’t fun for them.”
“Belonging to a team is not a bad thing. Having other people depend on you is not a bad thing. It gives you valuable life experience.”
From the time her son Dylan was 2, Michele Fleming of Plymouth knew his athletic abilities were above average. In a mom-and-tot gymnastics class, Dylan’s picture-perfect rolls and cartwheels had heads turning. He quickly mastered each additional sport to come his way, from inline skating to basketball.
“Whatever he does, he overachieves to the elite level,” says Fleming.
Fleming recalls a trip to Busch Gardens when Dylan was 8. He stepped up to accept the challenge of shooting from three stations around the NBA three-point perimeter. He sunk eight of 12 shots in one minute. He did even better a second time.
“Next thing we knew, a coach watching asked us where we lived,” she says.
These days, the 10-year-old competes on a travel flag football team, wrestles and dabbles in basketball. His mom and dad are regularly approached by parents and coaches calling dibs to be the boy’s agent should he go pro.
“He has this internal drive to excel.” Without prodding, Dylan practices tasks to perfection. Fleming has found her son taping off the basement floor to represent various quarterback footing positions. Recently she found him outside taping off yards to improve his 40-yard dash time for football camp.
His natural drive and abilities are bolstered by regular training with physical therapists with Mercy Elite in Livonia, who work with athletes on their form to prevent injury, and with a personal coach who works individually with Dylan on technique.
“He is training or competing every single day,” Fleming says. She and husband Gary have found their son’s experience with sports to be mostly positive. “Sports help with self-esteem, physical fitness and socializing.”
But her son’s talents have had their drawbacks, especially recently.
“This past year we saw for the first time some issues with jealousy and bullying.”
Fleming explains that Dylan’s athletic edge has earned him the ire of one or two other kids in school. As a result, on more than one occasion Dylan, downplayed his abilities in an attempt to go unnoticed when it came time for picking teams at recess.
“We don’t want our kids not doing the best they can because there is some mold to fit,” she says. “He does stand out. It’s a fact of life. I told him he shouldn’t be ashamed of who he is and doing what feels natural for him.
“It’s not a bad thing to be competitive by nature. You can’t condemn them for being that way when they’re little and then celebrate it when they grow up.”
While athletics are a big part of her son’s life – and for 12-year-old daughter Megan – Fleming admits it’s far from the only thing.
“Academics come first.” And just as with athletics, Dylan overachieves in the classroom. “His coach is a former recruiter who has seen more than one athlete lose a scholarship because he or she screwed up academically.”
His personal training and the costs associated with travel have been a challenge at times for Fleming, who does not work outside of the home.
“We used to go on multiple vacations each year,” she says. “Now we go on just one. And when we travel with his team, we always do it the easier, cheaper way.”
Then, there’s the cost of her time.
“Nothing is in our neighborhood,” says Fleming. “I always seem to be driving somewhere out of the way during rush hour.
“We’ve had to make some sacrifices for sure, but we’re able to sustain it for now. You can’t put a price on your kid’s happiness.”
Fleming maintains if Dylan were to wake one day and say he was done with sports, she would be shocked but OK with his decision.
“The moment the light in his eyes or the smile goes away, it’s over. He wouldn’t just be playing video games though. Knowing him, he would compete in another way.”
Photos by Lauren Jeziorski