Fueled by Family
Raising a Champion
n their road to greatness, champions are fueled by many things like ambition, passion, and national pride. But in those millions of moments away from the spotlight—when the winners’ podium is still a distant goal and the days aren’t filled with cheers but with aching muscles—it’s their families who help keep them going. Read the stories of the amazing moms behind incredible athletes. They are tales of love, laughter, and happy tears.
READ the stories of the AMAZING WOMEN behind these outstanding athletes
ERIK & KAWIKA SHOJI'S MOM
JENNY ARTHUR'S MOM
ADELINE GRAY'S MOM
KRISTINE LILLY'S MOM
JASON LEZAK'S MOM
LISA FERNANDEZ'S MOM
Mary Shoji is the mother of volleyball players and medalist hopefuls Erik and Kawika Shoji.
For Mary Shoji, a physical education teacher and wife of a university volleyball coach, sports—and competition—has always been a natural part of life.
“Even if we’re just playing ping pong or cribbage, the same competitive spirit comes out,” says Mary. “It’s been a part of our family forever. It’s part of our DNA and who we are.”
That drive has manifested in magnificent ways in her two sons, Kawika and Erik Shoji, who will represent the USA (and their home state Hawaii) in Rio as members of the national volleyball team.
“It’s such an incredible gift,” Mary says. “Just to watch them compete, whether it was on the basketball court at four years old or now, when they’re playing at the highest level. It’s brought such joy to my life."
Just to watch them compete... It’s brought such joy to my life."
While medals (especially the gold kind) are the goal, winning was never the sole motivation in the Shoji household. “It’s never just about the end result,” Mary says. “Whenever I would drop them off and they would leave the car we always said to them, ‘Just do your best. And more importantly, have fun at what you’re doing.’ That’s the beauty of where they are right now. They have a passion for the game and it shows when they play.”
Her family may have volleyball running through their veins, but Mary stresses “our kids were multi-sport athletes and I believe in that. So many kids now are one-dimensional and that’s not necessarily helpful.” Also not helpful? Mixing up priorities. “I would recommend allowing the coaches to coach and the parents to parent. As a family, we’re very values based: we wanted to teach them to take responsibility for their actions and not make excuses—more as people than as athletes."
Alfredia Arthur is the mother of champion weightlifter and medalist hopeful
“Are you sure you that’s what you want to do?”
That was the question Alfredia Arthur asked Jenny Arthur, her daughter, about her weightlifting ambitions. A natural athlete, Jenny had shown early promise in softball (“When she hit the ball, no one could locate it,” says Alfredia) and track and field.
But then suddenly, at 16, Jenny told her mom she wanted to pursue a different path.
“I told her I was behind her all the way since her mind was set on it. She had that determination and the self-discipline,” the mom of eight recalls. “So I said, ‘Whatever you decide to do, I know it’ll work out for you.’ I tell all my children that the possibilities are limitless. It’s incredible what she has accomplished.”
She has a heart of gold through and through."
When pushed for a story that defines Jenny—a two-time national champion who’s shattered every American record in her division—Alfredia’s proudest moment concerns a part of her daughter’s life far away from any podium.
“She has a softness about her. She volunteers at a children’s hospital,” says Alfredia. “At the event where they told her she’d made the team, she said to the coach next to her: ‘They have to hurry up because I have to go volunteer at the children’s hospital and it’s a mile away from the training center.’ She has a heart of gold through and through.”
Donna Gray is the mother of elite wrestler and gold medal hopeful Adeline Gray.
Donna Gray’s brothers and father were wrestlers so she understood the sport, but when her daughter decided to take it up too, there were brand new issues to sort through.
“There was a junior team who had wrestlers that would wrestle other girls, but wouldn’t wrestle her because they knew they’d lose to her,” recalls Donna. “So I called the school board and that put a stop to it.”
Adeline Gray’s habit of surpassing expectations—she is a world champion and will compete in Rio—started early on. “She’s been wrestling since she was six so she’s skilled,” says Donna. Still, at one tournament, one mom underestimated a young Adeline and assumed her son would notch an easy triumph. “That mom didn’t know what was coming! Adeline won the tournament handily."
This has been a fabulous journey and it’s made her into a better person."
Off the mat, Donna worked to keep her daughter’s individuality intact: “She always wanted to be respected as an athlete, but she didn’t want to be treated like one of the boys. Adeline missed a tournament one time to go to prom or a homecoming or something. Her father was against it, but I was like, ‘No! She won’t remember that tournament, but she will remember this dance.'”
That ability to keep things in perspective also comes in handy during moments of disappointment. "When we were in Budapest and she took a bronze in the World Championships, she was upset. But even then, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she got an international medal!' It was like, 'It’s not what you wanted, but come on, kid!’ This has been a fabulous journey and it’s made her into a better person."
Terri Morelli is the mother of soccer legend and two-time gold medalist Kristine Lilly.
“That is hard to explain,” Terri Morelli answered when asked how she handled watching her daughter Kristine Lilly compete. “Putting it simple: I was a wreck.”
From an early age, Lilly exhibited the precocious talent that seemingly all athletic stars share. While still in high school, she was recruited to become a member of the United States women’s national team. To get to that point, there were endless runs to practices and games.
“There were a lot of sacrifices, like limiting family vacations and family functions,” Morelli said. “I never pushed her—that was her commitment. As a parent, I wanted to do whatever she needed to support her dream.”
Be supportive, positive, encouraging and loving."
That reality ended up being even brighter than any dream could be: Lilly, besides her medals haul, holds the world record for 352 international appearances, is the only player to have competed on behalf of the United States in four different decades, and is both the youngest and oldest player to ever score a goal for the United States.
"My favorite moments were going to all her USA team games around the world,” Morelli said. "Seeing her on the podium receiving her two gold medals and silver medal, and representing the USA, always brought me to tears.”
Asked what advice she had for parents of children with similar ambitions, she provided a simple prescription: "Be supportive, positive, encouraging and loving.”
Linda Lezak is the mother of gold medalist swimmer Jason Lezak.
“That was a real gut-wrenching time,” says Linda Lezak. She’s talking about when her son—champion swimmer Jason Lezak—nearly ended his career after being kicked off his college team during his junior year.
I didn't want him to live with the 'what ifs?'"
"I didn’t want him to one day look back and regret quitting," she explains. "I knew he enjoyed the sport. I knew he had to have fun again. I didn’t want him to live with the ‘what ifs?'”
So she and Jason sat down together in front of a computer and wrote a contract to his coach that included his goals and promises to do better.
“He had it in his bedroom and every single day he took a look at it to remind himself, ‘This is what I’ve agreed to and this is what I need to do.’”
While Linda has experienced plenty of proud moments watching her son compete, one sticks out in her mind—and it didn't happen in the water.
"In 2000, after Jason won his first gold medal, I was teaching elementary school and they wanted him to come and speak to students,” remembers Linda. “Public speaking was so out of his comfort zone so asking him to speak in front of 900 students and 50 adults was pretty scary for him. He freaked out a little. But we talked and he got up there. Seeing the way he related to all of those students and what he had to say was one of the most moving times of my life."
Emilia Fernandez is the mother of gold medalist softball player Lisa Fernandez.
Emilia Fernandez raised two very different daughters: one is an accountant and the other, Lisa Fernandez, won gold three times as a pitcher on the national softball team.
"Every kid is different," says Emilia. "You’ve got to let them be what they want to be.”
From very early on, Emilia realized that what Lisa wanted to be was on the field: “I used to play slow-pitch softball and Lisa would just follow the ball right away," she says. "Lisa always wanted to play. One of the fathers had a team of little girls, and when he saw Lisa playing, he realized she had talent. So we put her on a five-and-under team.”
From that point on, her daughter was hooked. Lisa "always wanted to practice," Emilia says. "I never had to tell her."
Every kid is different. You’ve got to let them be what they want to be."
On the mound, Lisa was a force, says Emilia, "very confident. She loved to compete. I would definitely get nervous when she would pitch against older players."
Helping Lisa reach the highest level of competition in her sport meant making innumerable drives to practice and spending countless hours on the sidelines cheering her on: "Money was an issue for our family, so we never flew out of state. We spent lots of time together driving to softball tournaments."
But the long hours in the car were well worth it. When Lisa called to tell her parents she'd made the team going to Atlanta in 1996, "we were so excited," recalls Emilia. "It was an honor to have our daughter represent the USA in the sport she loved."
Emilia didn't think she could ever be prouder—until five years later, when officials in Lakewood, Calif., where Lisa spent much of her youth, renamed the softball diamond she grew up playing on "Lisa Fernandez Field."
On the day of the dedication, "we cried with pride," Emilia says, "we were so overwhelmed. That park was where we played as a family. It was where Lisa won a high school championship. That field is very special to us."
Today the Fernandezes live just a short drive away. Whenever they visit, they're flooded with happy memories.
"Just seeing her play," says Emilia, "was our joy."
Copyright © 2016 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.