- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

As they say in the world of balance beams and un- even bars, Terin Humphrey had outgrown the gym.

By age 9, she already was too good, in need of better gymnastics instruction and facilities. The Humphrey family made a tough decision. They left behind everyone they knew, departed the comfortable environs of Albany, Mo., and moved to suburban Kansas City.

“Everyone thought we were crazy,” says Terin’s mother, Lisa Humphrey, “and we have to admit, we probably were. But we knew we had to make the move. We sat down with everyone in our lives and told them we had to move to be near the coaches who could get her to where she wanted to go.”

Where Terin Humphrey wanted to go as a gymnast was a higher level. Just that. No one talked about the Olympics, not then. But things worked out.

Terin got better and better, and now, at 17, she is one of six members of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team that is favored to win the gold medal in Athens. The Olympics’ opening ceremony is Friday and the women’s gymnastics competition starts next Sunday.

Terin’s coach, Al Fong, let the family know early on that the journey would be long and arduous. And not just for Terin.

“It’s definitely been a struggle,” says her father, Steve Humphrey, speaking for the entire family.

The sacrifices made by young Olympic athletes —and would-be athletes — are well chronicled. So are the inordinate time and effort that border on cruel and unusual punishment, according to some.

That’s the system, more so in sports such as gymnastics and swimming. Critics argue that these youngsters give up too much — like their childhoods.

But the athletes’ families also sacrifice, in profound ways. They uproot and move, often many times. They change jobs, spend interminable hours driving back and forth to practice and waiting for their children. The financial hardships are often severe.

A banker by trade, a carpenter by hobby, Steve Humphrey took to building houses nights and weekends to help pay for Terin’s training and competition — the membership and other assorted fees, the travel, the equipment. Mr. Humphrey says he never calculated the exact total, but he estimates it at somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 annually over the five years in which Terin trained to become an elite gymnast.

“There were times I wondered how we were ever going to do it,” Mr. Humphrey says. “But it always seemed to work out for us.”

A lot of crying’

He is not alone. Terin and Olympic teammate Courtney McCool train at the same gym, the Great American Gymnastics Express in Blue Springs, Mo., under the same coach.

At one point, Courtney’s mother, Linda, held three jobs. She taught special education, worked at a clothing store and cleaned the gym at night.

The McCool family withstood financial and health problems that had nothing to do with gymnastics, but Courtney’s training was a major consideration.

“There was a lot of crying,” Linda McCool says.

Courtney’s father, Michael, an interior designer, is diabetic. He recently underwent quintuple-bypass surgery after a heart attack. On top of all this, the McCools are separated and plan to divorce. Linda, Courtney and her sister, Morgan, moved out in 2002.

With everything piling up, Courtney wanted to quit about a year and a half ago. No way, she was told.

“She had way too much potential,” Mrs. McCool says.

The McCools and Humphreys raised money to help pay for their trip to Athens. The McCools went so far as to create a Web site.

Courtney Kupets’ family, from Gaithersburg, also raised funds for the trip. Patti Kupets figures it cost about $25,000 a year to mold her daughter into an Olympic gymnast.

Expenses were not limited to Courtney Kupets’ training at Hill’s Gymnastics. Her older sister, Ashley, was an elite-level gymnast, too. She is enrolled at the University of Georgia on a scholarship. A brother, Mark, attends the pricey University of Pennsylvania, where he receives only partial financial aid.

Patti Kupets works at Courtney’s gym, where she teaches youngsters who are starting out. Her husband, Mark Kupets, sells veterinary pharmaceuticals and other products.

“I had to sell a lot of pet food,” Mr. Kupets says.

“It was a total sacrifice until now, really,” Mrs. Kupets says. “We’re happy with the results, we’re thrilled. … Just kind of a crazy life, but that’s OK. It’s been exciting.

“We went into debt, our cars aren’t that great. But we knew it would eventually come out OK. We’ve just always wanted to be there for our kids.”

Worth it’

Developing a swimmer, while less expensive, is not cheap either. Club and travel fees can add up. Caps, suits, goggles and uniforms are not free.

At 15, swimmer Katie Hoff of Abingdon, Md., became the youngest member of the entire U.S. Olympic team a few weeks ago, but not without a price.

“We do what we need to do, and we’ll come up with the money,” says Katie’s mother, Jeanne Hoff. “I work part time. I’ve always had a job. It wouldn’t make any difference what it would cost.

“We feel this is worth it, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mrs. Hoff adds. “When you look at the amount of effort and determination, even though it’s expensive, the money’s worth it. [Katie] is very aware of what it costs, and the fact her dad works very hard and I work hard to provide this.”

It is hard, if not impossible, to find a parent of an Olympic athlete who says it isn’t worth it, and not because their child at the very least ends up with a college scholarship or, at most, a lucrative career. That’s not why they’re in it, they say. Likewise, nearly every athlete acknowledges parents’ sacrifices.

But second thoughts occur, and not just about the money. The commitment often results in utter disruption of a family’s lifestyle.

Moving almost always seems to be part of the deal.

The Humphreys hated to leave Albany, a close-knit community where friends and family were central to their lives.

“We knew everybody,” Mrs. Humphrey says. “We loved living in a small town.”

Mr. Humphrey got a comparable job with his bank, but it wasn’t quite the same as the old job.

The Hoffs, who declined to be photographed for this report, moved from Richmond to Williamsburg, Va. They then moved to Abingdon so Katie could train at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, which produced superstar Michael Phelps, among others. Mrs. Hoff’s mother lives in Williamsburg, and Katie and brother Christian are close to their grandmother.

“That was the hardest part of the decision,” says Mrs. Hoff, a former basketball player at Stanford. “If it was farther away, we wouldn’t have done it. We felt 3 hours [away] was doable, that we would be able to see each other enough. But it was definitely a hard part of the decision.”

On the move

In the past few years, the Kupets family moved from Richmond to McLean to Centreville to Gaithersburg, where they now reside.

It wasn’t only about Courtney. Her brother, Mark, was a Virginia state champion pole vaulter and the family moved to Centreville after his high school coach left.

While living in McLean and then Centreville, Mrs. Kupets commuted to Gaithersburg so Ashley and Courtney could train. The constant travel, sometimes an hour each way, was exhausting.

“I used to eat pretzels and slap my face, trying to stay awake,” Mrs. Kupets says.

When the driving became too much, she shared an apartment with another gymnastics mom for a few months. This meant the family was paying for two residences.

Mark Kupets says the family van, five years old, has 150,000 miles on it. He says they traded in a Dodge Neon, also five years old, with 120,000 miles.

Living in Centreville was the hardest part. Mrs. Kupets worked at the gym with children 15 months to 5 years of age and Ashley and Courtney were training, so the Kupets often returned home late in the evening. By that time, most parking spaces in their apartment complex were full. Sometimes, Mr. Kupets was out of town and his wife had what seemed like a long walk, alone, to get home.

“I’d think, ‘Please, God, help me get safely to my apartment,’ ” Patti Kupets says. “It was always dark in the parking lot. It was scary.”

I was spent’

The grind is constant. And when family matters intrude, the sorts of things all families experience, the result can be as scary as walking unattended across a dark parking lot.

“I remember it was spring, and there had been so many meets on weekends and so much traveling and me driving back forth, and waiting, and we were having financial problems,” Mrs. McCool says.

“We were having some problems with our son. It was just the whole thing. Emotionally, I was spent. I went to lie down and rest for about a half an hour. I could not get up. About two hours later, Morgan came in. She just kind of looked at me. I called her coach and said, ‘Diane, I am just spent. Morgan’s not coming.’ I just couldn’t do it. It was weird.”

Al Fong, who coaches Courtney McCool and Terin Humphrey among other elite gymnasts, says he makes it clear what families are in for. He tells them straight, and it isn’t pretty.

“I have a heart-to-heart with them,” Mr. Fong says. “I tell them to just realize that this is a long road, a long journey, that we’re going to take it slowly in development and that you, the parents, need to take it slowly. And there are going to be some huge costs and sacrifices I can tell you about.

“But you’ll have no idea till you go through it.”

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