- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

Big goals depend on small drills.

For Leslie Swinley, 15, that means being in the pool at American University at dawn, improving endurance and perfecting a freestyle stroke that, she hopes, will earn her a spot on the next U.S. Olympic team.

The routine is the same for Potomac's Ryan Hurley, 17, who once had to be bribed with the promise of basketball cards if he would sit through his sister's swim team practice. Now he trains with Leslie and the Washington-based Curl-Burke Swim Club nine times a week, finishing off hours of laps in the pool with 500 squats while holding a medicine ball.

Elizabeth Wisenberg's sacrifice comes in the form of blisters on her feet and about half the day spent practicing plies and pirouettes at the Washington School of Ballet. Elizabeth, 16, is a promising ballerina and a straight-A student at Fairfax County's Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. Elizabeth, who lives in Arlington, attends the school until 11:45 a.m., then bolts downtown and dances until dinnertime.

"I'm not even there for lunch," Elizabeth says without much regret.

This is life for extremely talented teenagers. The activity and its specific training mode may be different, but the scenario is the same for Leslie, Ryan and Elizabeth. Physical talent is just part of the package, which also includes time management, sore muscles and missing many typical high school functions.

For their parents, it means a monetary investment as well as an Olympic-size time commitment. Behind every young champion is a parent who keeps the schedule, limits the junk food, drives to practices, monitors injuries and makes sure his or her child isn't buckling under the pressure.

"I'm an attorney," says Elizabeth's mother, Evangeline. The Wisenbergs have three other children, one of whom is an award-winning pianist. "But I have been a full-time mom for 17 years. What I do now is develop these kids. I'm not in the business of being a prodigy-maker, and I don't want to be a stage mom. I coordinate and manage, but Elizabeth is very self-directing."

That has meant petitioning the school for Elizabeth's compressed school schedule, researching ballet school scholarship opportunities and arranging the logistics for Elizabeth to take part in prestigious summer dance programs. Elizabeth attended American Ballet Theatre programs in New York and California last summer, and Mrs. Wisenberg accompanied her as a chaperone for six weeks.

"It takes cooperation as a family," Mrs. Wisenberg says. "My youngest child has spent a lot of his childhood in the car. But there have been benefits, too. We had a family vacation with Elizabeth in California. You have to do things to make everyone feel their needs are being met."

Sure, almost every parent whose child ever picked up a tennis racket or banged out "Chopsticks" on the piano has had visions of Wimbledon or Carnegie Hall. By the time children get to an elite level, however, whether it is in the pool or the physics lab, the dream is usually their own, says Steven Danish, professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The development of talented people usually follows three phases, Mr. Danish says.

First comes the romance phase, in which the activity is marked by exploration as fun (such as learning to swim and competing on the local swim club's team). During this phase, motivation and effort count more than any special gifts the child has, he says.

Next comes the precision phase, in which the athlete focuses on systematic learning and development. That is followed by the integration phase, in which the sport is a full-fledged part of the athlete.

"After about age 12, only about 10 percent of kids will get to the integration level," Mr. Danish says. "This is when kids begin to perfect talent. By this level, the kids are increasingly responsible for how much time is spent on the activity."

In other words, they realize that commitment to endless laps or barre work is necessary for Olympic gold or the lead in "Swan Lake."

"It is really hard to get out of bed," says Leslie, who lives in Vienna, "but I know I have to do it. When I'm swimming laps, I think about a lot of things. I tell myself it's almost over."

Success in athletics often carries over into life for teen participants, particularly if they are in sports that don't have the huge monetary payoffs that some, such as basketball and football, sometimes offer, Mr. Danish says. Budgeting time, making decisions, even earning good grades to be eligible for scholarships are common traits among lower-profile athletes, he says.

Mr. Danish calls the focus, patience and communication learned through sports "life skills." It is up to parents and coaches to teach those life skills and keep the big picture in perspective, he says. That is why it is important that a young prodigy be treated at home like the rest of the children in the family. Parents also should help children set goals that go beyond sports, he says.

"You have to remember that being 30 is like being 90 in sports," Mr. Danish says. "So it is up to parents to provide perspective. Some parents don't do that because they get wrapped up in the excitement of the moment."

Studying and dancing

When Elizabeth Wisenberg looks at the big picture, she sees two snapshots. One is of a prima ballerina. The other is of a girl who excels in math and could likely attend an Ivy League school.

"A bunch of students at TJ (Thomas Jefferson) have gone to MIT," Elizabeth says proudly. "But I really do have to make the fork in the road. I know I want to be a dancer."

Elizabeth was 4 years old when she became drawn to a combination of music, artistry and athleticism in ballet after watching her older sister take classes. At age 6, she was dancing in a professional production of "The Nutcracker."

Around the same time, teachers pointed out Elizabeth's rare grace, drive and talent. Weekly lessons turned into twice-weekly, then daily. There was no awkward pudgy stage, only long dancer's limbs.

"Elizabeth is passionate about dance," says Mary Day, founder of the Washington School of Ballet, which is part of the Washington Ballet. "She is interested in dance as an art form, not just as a performance. A lot of dancers perform very well, but they must also respect the art of dance."

Respecting dance means little face time at other teen hangouts. There are rehearsals on Fridays, so the chances of attending a party or football game are slim. Sleepovers usually are out of the question, as Elizabeth has to get up to dance in the morning.

"My closest friends are my ballet friends," she says. Like many teens, she keeps in touch with a wide circle via e-mail. Sometimes, though, even that has to wait in favor of Advanced Placement calculus, chemistry and history. Homework keeps Elizabeth up until midnight most nights.

"Elizabeth is very smart," Miss Day says. "She can do so many things because she says she has learned to budget her time."

Focused on the Olympics

Ryan Hurley is a champion time-budgeter as well. He gets up at 4 a.m. and drives himself to the pool at American University. He returns there after school to practice until 7 p.m. Ryan, a junior at Georgetown Preparatory School, uses a study period at school to do most of his homework.

"I try to get to bed by 9 p.m.," he says. "It is really kind of sad, but I don't get to hang out a lot. I am either too busy or too tired. My friend and I have a joke that I am the founder of the sober club. I don't drink or smoke. I am trying to eat less junk food, cut down on soda.

"I went out with another swimmer until last September," Ryan says. "I think breaking up was probably a good thing. My parents and coach thought it was a distraction."

Ryan, who has qualified for the 2004 Olympic trials in the 200-meter breaststroke, isn't sad when he says this. Dreams do not come without decisions.

"Some people have more talent than I do," he says. "I really think you have to have the work ethic. You have to want it for yourselfif you don't put in the time, talent will only take you so far. I just want to do everything I possibly can to achieve my goals. I would really love to go to the Olympics. I would like to swim in college, too."

'This can be grueling'

Karen and Paul Swinley are swim parents. Mrs. Swinley drives Leslie before sunrise to her practice in the District.

Mr. Swinley has a flexible schedule, so he is there to shuttle Leslie who also has qualified for the 2004 Olympic trials from the pool to the Madeira School in McLean. The drill goes in reverse in the afternoon.

Leslie started out by swimming on the neighborhood team. Since then, her parents have spent countless hours in the stands, comparing time-trial tidbits with other swim parents. When their children are this involved, the other parents become friends and traveling companions, Mrs. Swinley says.

"We have a lot in common," she says of the other swimmers' parents. "You can't really talk to other people about these things."

Mrs. Swinley estimates that swimming costs her family at least $5,000 a year. That doesn't include travel costs to places as close as Florida and as far away as Australia this year.

The Swinleys have a son, Trevor, 11. He plays basketball and swims for the neighborhood swim team in the summer.

"He has ability [as a swimmer], too," Mrs. Swinley says, "but he is not as motivated inside for swimming. He thinks the meets are boring, so I try to make arrangements for him to go to a friend's house. He doesn't like it when I miss his [basketball] games, though. So we have worked it out where I handle Leslie's things, and my husband handles Trevor's things."

Planning around the swim schedule can get frustrating, Mrs. Swinley says.

"We do feel tied down," she says. "We can't go on vacation except a two-week period in the summer when the swimmers are off. We had to go to a wedding in November, and the coaches asked, 'Can [Leslie] find a pool where you'll be?' "

Leslie and Ryan's coach, Rick Curl, has had gold-medal winners in the past three Olympics.

"Success is definitely a combination of the swimmer, the family and the coach," Mr. Curl says. "It does take God-given talent, but I have seen a lot of talented swimmers who never reach their potential because they are missing the parental support. And the kids have to love what they are doing to make that commitment. No question, there is a lot of sacrifice involved."

Mrs. Swinley says she tries to gauge when Leslie feels that life is getting out of balance. Sometimes, she says, it can seem like an endless cycle of eat-swim-sleep.

"This can be grueling," Mrs. Swinley says. "Just being able to say it out loud helps. That's when we do something fun, like go to the mall."

For the most part, champions look back on their sacrifices with pride, even if they don't end up winning a gold medal, says Shane Murphy, former head of the sports psychology program for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"By and large, kids don't regret what they have missed," Mr. Murphy says. "They say they got so much on the other side. They traveled, made friends in other countries. It is the sacrifices that help make them the special person they become."

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