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BREAKING AWAY : Jessica and Phoebe Mills Go to Great Lengths to Reach Stardom in Respective Sports

January 08, 1989|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

One daughter, barely 16, lives in Houston, where she has developed into the country's best gymnast.

Another daughter, 14, lives in Southern California, where she is making a name for herself as a figure skater.

A son, 18, the eldest of half a dozen children, has returned to the family nest in Northfield, Ill., an upper middle-class suburb of Chicago, after sharpening his speed skating skills for a year in Butte, Mont., and Calgary.

And to think that Chris and Susan Mills directed their children toward sports to bring the family closer together.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Chris and Susan were both athletic. Susan won 9 varsity letters in high school. And even though he lost his left leg in a tractor accident when he was 13, Chris became a national amputee skiing champion. Skiing brought them together. They met on a slope in Michigan.

The sport they chose for their family was speed skating. It was challenging, requiring speed, strength and balance. It was convenient. They joined a club in a nearby suburb, where they routinely skated on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was non-discriminatory. Girls could compete as well as boys. The family that skates together . . .

Then Phoebe, who enjoyed bouncing around the house, discovered gymnastics. After spotting a newspaper advertisement for a local club, the Mid-America Twisters, Susan enrolled the second of her three daughters.

The Twisters had one of the nation's few elite programs, attracting female gymnasts from throughout the country. If they did not live close enough to Chicago to remain at home, their parents entrusted them to surrogate families. Chris and Susan were appalled.

"I was not at all open-minded," Susan said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, how can those parents do that? How could anyone send their kids away in such important years?' I thought it was terrible."

But the Twisters' coach closed the club and moved to Utah for a college job. That same summer, when Phoebe was 11, she attended one of Bela Karolyi's camps in Wisconsin.

Karolyi coached Nadia Comaneci in Romania before defecting and at the time, the summer of 1983, was coaching one of the United States' most promising female gymnasts in years, Mary Lou Retton. He thought Phoebe had potential and invited her to train at his club in Houston.

"Big deal," Susan said. "We thought it would be like summer camp. We didn't think that much of it until it was time for her to go to school. She wanted to stay there.

"We said, 'Well, she can stay until Christmas, and if it doesn't work out, she'll come home.' We looked for signs that she wasn't happy, but she never, never complained."

So it was not as traumatic for the Millses when their youngest daughter, Jessica, moved to Janesville, Wis., at 9 to train with one of the nation's best figure skating coaches. That, at least, was close enough to Northfield that she could go home on weekends.

Or when she was 11 and followed her coach to Boston. Or when she was 12 and moved to the South Bay to train with another coach, Barbara Roles, at the Olympic Ice Arena in Harbor City.

"If you think about all the problems or all the things that could go wrong, you'll never let your kids leave home when they're this young," Susan said. "There are those who do not do as well without the constant companionship of their parents. But for my kids, this seems to be what works well."

No one can argue with their athletic accomplishments.

Phoebe, the national all-around gymnastics champion last year, was the leader of the U.S. squad that finished fourth in the team competition at the 1988 Summer Olympics. She was the only U.S. gymnast who won a medal, a bronze on the balance beam.

Not 16 until last November, she could also be a medal contender at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona if she does not fill out physically or burn out mentally.

Long-range projections are at least equally bright for Jessica, who surprised virtually everyone who has followed her short career, including her parents and her coach, by winning the world junior figure skating championship last month at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Such an important championship at such a young age, 14, was entirely unexpected, especially considering that Jessica, who belongs to the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club, earned 1 of the 2 U.S. berths in the girls' competition by default.

Just beginning to spread her wings, she finished fourth in the junior nationals last winter and became the second alternate for the world team. She was called upon because the champion turned 18 before the competition, which is for girls 12 through 17, and the third-place finisher was injured.

But she did not win the championship by default. She moved into first place overall by finishing fourth in the school figures and second in the short program, then sealed the victory with a first in her dynamic long program, which, if you believe Canada's 1976 Olympic champion Toller Cranston, was a vision of things to come.

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