Total team effort


In the splash and tumble of life, Kathleen Murphy and her family give it 110 per cent. Their lives revolve around elite competition — ‘Everything. Day to day.’ What else is there?

From left: Brennan Villemaire, Rob Villemaire, Mary Villemaire and Kathleen Murphy.

From left: Brennan Villemaire, Rob Villemaire, Mary Villemaire and Kathleen Murphy.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

Kathleen Murphy is talking a mile a minute as she peers through Plexiglas at the Ottawa Gymnastics Centre.

Like most days of the week, Murphy’s 16-year-old daughter, Mary Villemaire, is training. It’s an 18-hour-a-week commitment that includes Friday evenings and a large chunk of every Sunday. On top of that, the young gymnast also coaches at the club on Saturday afternoons.

“When I hear somebody say, ‘Oh, I’m so busy …” Murphy says. “Well, I just smile.”

Gymnastics is just the half of it.

Murphy’s son, Brennan Villemaire, is also an elite athlete. The 17-year-old is one of the top 12 male platform divers in Canada, and one of the top 20 off the springboard. Every week day, Brennan leaves Notre Dame High School at 1 p.m. for the Nepean Sportsplex where he trains until 5:30 p.m. — “at least two hours of diving, 11ž2 hours of dryland, lifting weights, doing somersaults.” He also coaches younger divers for a few hours on Saturdays.

For most parents, just getting kids to practice on time is a point of pride. But Kathleen Murphy has always been an overachiever. In 1976, she represented Canada at the Montreal Olympics where she competed against Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. These days, she serves as president of her daughter’s gymnastics club and is also a coach and general manager at the Ottawa Nationals Diving Club, an organization she helped to create two years ago.

Back in the real world, she keeps the books for the auto glass company she runs with her husband, Rob Villemaire.

Family life revolves around the Villemaire kids. “Everything. Day to day.” The commitments are dizzying.

Consider a typical day in their life:

n 5 a.m.: Kathleen is up — “I’m a very, very early riser” — and responding to e-mails about business, gymnastics and diving.

n 7 to 7:40 a.m.: The kids wake up and head to school.

n 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.: Kathleen works in the shop.

n 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Kathleen works on gym business.

n 1 p.m.: Kathleen shuttles Brennan from school to the swimming pool where she coaches him and other elite divers.

n 3:30 p.m.: Rob picks up Mary from school. “That can be very trying,” he says of his need to extricate himself from work. “But at quarter to 3, I’m out of here, getting her something to eat, I’m getting her to the gym. She sits in the van and eats and we talk a little bit.” Nothing else matters, he says. “That’s the life I choose to live. It’s our way of life.”

n 5:30 p.m.: Kathleen arrives home with Brennan, who eats dinner and starts homework.

n 8 p.m.: Mary returns from the gym and starts school assignments.

n 9 p.m.: Kathleen hits the sack.

There’s nothing routine about their weekends. Between the two kids, Brennan and Mary are away at competitions 16 weekends a year — “$1,000 to $1,500 weekends” once you add in hotel and travel costs. Most of Mary’s events are within driving distance, while Brennan often competes nationally.

In most cases, Kathleen travels with the teenager who is competing.

Like all amateur sports associations, the diving and gymnastics clubs hold fundraisers to cut costs. The family also commits to endless volunteer hours. Rob spent a recent weekend lugging around materials for a carpenter who was building new training structures at the gym.

Still, gymnastic training costs upward of $5,000 each year. Elite diving is more expensive because of the cost of pool time and the need to travel longer distances. Between the two, Murphy estimates the cost of keeping the children in competition during the past year was in the $20,000 to $22,000 range.

“It’s unbelievable,” Murphy says of the expenses. “It’s a good thing we have our own business. I don’t know how families do it. I’m not saying we’re extremely rich, but if you’re not comfortable, it’s ridiculous, because there’s no help from the city, from the province, from the country. At least (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper’s $500 tax credit is something. But $500 is, like, one week of training.”

Her husband is slightly more philosophical about the demands on his wallet. “It costs lots and lots of money to do things,” he acknowledges. “But what would I spend it on? What would I buy? What would I do with the money that I would do otherwise? When you think about it, what else can I do with money that can give me that much enjoyment?”

Of course, it’s not just a commitment of finances — it’s a matter of time.

“Just getting them there,” Murphy explains. “Trying to figure out a schedule to get them there.”

It’s rare for all to enjoy a weeknight dinner together. When there is no weekend competition, the family makes the most of it. Rob plays chef — “that’s my way of relaxing,” he says.

“We only dedicate so much time to talking about diving and gymnastics,” Murphy says. “Dad can ask how it (training) went and stuff like that, but it can’t take over dinner. Brennan still needs to talk to his Dad about hockey and how the Sens are doing and stuff like that.”

And so it goes, day after day. Rob often shakes his head, trying to figure out how his wife squeezes so much into a 24-hour day. “I feel for her. She goes non-stop. It’s amazing. If she’s not at work, taking care of what is a fast-paced business, then it’s about the kids.”

The only time in the year they get away from it all is at Christmas when they head to Hawaii for two weeks with the goal of doing nothing. “No training, no schoolwork.”

Murphy is well aware that she has plenty of critics. There are some who accuse her of overscheduling her children, leaving them with little time to simply hang out. “What else are they going to do?” she asks. “Get a job? Work retail? This could lead to a whole lot of things.”

She knows from experience that the benefits of training extend beyond sports. “I always wanted them to know what they were doing. The discipline of that comes from my upbringing. It has been an unbelievable benefit in my life.”

She sees this in her own children. For starters, they’re organized. “It’s having your bag ready for the next day, having your homework done for the next day. And then it grows,” she says. “You have to have a goal almost every day. That’s what I’ve always taught them.”

Brennan Villemaire is in Grade 12 this year. He’s an honour role student with a U.S. scholarship in his sights. He has completed several online courses to make up for time away from school at afternoon training.

“I don’t think I’m really missing anything,” he says when asked about his social life. “Not many kids do much after school. Most of them go home and do homework. Nobody goes out on weekdays anymore."

Every so often someone will ask if he wants to go to a movie. “I’ll say I can’t because I’ve got to train. But that’s once in a blue moon. A lot of my friends work. I wouldn’t say this is work, but it’s similar in that it takes up a lot of time.”

Still, there was a six-month stretch last year when he was in danger of burning out. His coach left for a new gig, just as Brennan was entering a stage of competition that involved more difficult dives. His confidence was on the wane. He visited with sports psychologists and hypnotists. “He was national champion on platform, and he wouldn’t even jump off it any more,” Murphy recalls. “He was really borderline quitting and calling it a day.”

Looking back, Brennan says “everything happened at once.”

His former coach invited Brennan to train at her new club in London, Ont., a proposition the family contemplated seriously. “I just thought it was too early to leave home,” Brennan explains.

When his mother proposed the idea of taking over as coach, Brennan said ‘No’ before deciding to give it a shot.

With a bit of negotiating, mother and son have decided that what happens at the pool stays at the pool. “It’s a coach/kid relationship until 5 p.m. Everything after that, she’s ‘Mom.’”

So Murphy is poolside daily, watching intently as Brennan unfolds himself into a handstand at the edge of the 10-metre tower to start a dive, offering encouragement or analysis if he hits the water slightly off balance.

Like her brother, Mary Villemaire is not convinced she’s missing out on much by spending so many hours in the gym. She began tumbling at the age of two.

“It has never been any other way,” she says at the start of a five-hour session. “It’s definitely a passion and I love it here.”

Still, she admits, she has moments when she thinks about leaving. “It’s more the overload. Here, you have to focus so hard. At school you have to focus so hard. You get so brain dead by the end of the day. You go home and start homework — nothing in between — just start right away and get as far as you can.”

Murphy recalls a time when her daughter wanted to quit. “I think it was Grade 8 or Grade 9, she felt sort of that pressure to compete nationally,” she recalls. “She felt like she had to be as good as me. The fact is, she’s better. It’s just that gymnastics has changed that much.”

Mary, also an honour role student, is a step away from reaching Level 9 provincial status, a tier below national team level.

Much as Mary loves gymnastics, she says it’s not her life. “I’m not looking towards a scholarship or anything, it’s just something to keep me busy after school and keep me in shape.”

Kathleen Murphy is well aware that to some this all sounds a little bit nuts. “All of the women I know look at me and say, ‘Are you crazy?’ A little bit, I say. But you know what, it will all come to a halt and I will wonder what I’m going to do with all my time.”

From left: Brennan Villemaire, Rob Villemaire, Mary Villemaire and Kathleen Murphy.

From left: Brennan Villemaire, Rob Villemaire, Mary Villemaire and Kathleen Murphy.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, The Ottawa Citizen

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