If Jessica Aney (pronounced A–Nee) had a motto, it would be "No big deal." Ask the humble seventh grader about beating high school players four and five years older than she is on the tennis court, and she'll tell you, "No big deal." Ask the 4' 11" forward about skating circles around bigger players—including boys—on the ice hockey rink, and it's still no big deal. "I'm used to it now," says the 12-year-old from Rochester, Minnesota, who goes by Jessie. But the truth is, Jessie is a big deal. She's one of the nation's most talented youth tennis players, an elite-level hockey player, and a straight-A student. Now she has one more honor to add to her long list: she's the SI KIDS 2010 SportsKid of the Year.
How did Jessie reach tennis greatness? She hit the ball into the net. A lot.
No, not the net on the tennis court. About seven years ago, the Aney family bought a 12-foot-by-eight-foot net that you could throw or hit a ball at, and the ball would bounce back to you. Five-year-old Jessie made a habit of spending an hour or two every day pounding a tennis ball into the net again and again and again. It never got boring. Her parents (dad Tom and mom Karen both played tennis in college) would give her occasional coaching tips, but her swing was perfected through hours of repetition.
"Every once in a while you get a kid who pushes themselves way beyond any other kid," says Mike Goldammer, the director of the USTA's Northern Section, in which Jessie is ranked Number 1 in two age groups. "Jessie is constantly motivating herself. She's very gifted."
Jessie's game is similar to tennis champion Justine Henin's. "The way Jessie moves her feet, it's just heavenly to watch," says Goldammer. "Her movement is better than any of the junior players—boy or girl—[in the Northern Section]."
This fall, Jessie played Number 2 singles for Century High School as a seventh grader, the youngest grade eligible for high school sports in Minnesota. She came within one set of winning the Class 2A state singles championship, but lost to her teammate Kelsey Frechette, a junior.
While people considered her to be the underdog of the tournament, Jessie didn't see it that way. "I almost always think I'm going to win," she says. "I'm just very confident."
Cool As Ice
The road to Jessie's greatness on the ice didn't start as smoothly. She was two when she started skating, but after her first season of hockey at age four, Jessie wanted to quit, which her parents had no problem with.
Months later, sign-up for the next hockey season rolled around. Tom brought Jessie's older sister, Katie, to register for the new season. Jessie came along, mostly because sign-up day included free pizza, but after Katie was registered, Tom asked Jessie, "Are you sure you don't want to play hockey?" Her answer: "Well ...O.K.!"
Since then, she has become one of Minnesota's top players. PJ Norby coaches Jessie on Minnesota Team Reebok, an elite program that plays in some of the world's most competitive tournaments. Norby first saw Jessie when she was nine. "Her hands were amazing," he remembers. "She could skate full speed, pick up the puck with her stick, spin around, and throw the puck over her shoulder. She was doing stuff that high school boys can't do."
In August, Jessie played with Team Reebok at the International Cup, a tournament that features elite players from the U.S. and Canada. Even though she was a year younger than most of the players in the under-12 division, Jessie took home tournament MVP honors with four goals and two assists as Team Reebok won the title.
Jessie's accomplishments go beyond the sports world. The past two years, she's been part of the highly-gifted program at Friedell Middle School, where she has a 4.0 grade point average. She can fit so much into her day because of what she leaves out: TV, computer time, and video games. "I don't like to sit there, in front of the TV or the computer," she says. "I'd rather be playing."
That focus and drive translates into sports. "She's very creative on the ice," says Doug Zmolek, who played eight seasons in the NHL and now coaches youth hockey in Rochester. "But the neat thing is that she has a motor that never stops. Her work ethic is very rare."
So what does the future hold for Jessie? "If she grows to be 5' 7", I have no doubt she could become one of the top 100 tennis players in the world," says Goldammer. Adds Norby: "Minnesota is the girls' hockey capital of the U.S., and Jessie's doing things that our all-state high school girls can't do. All-state, college Division I, Olympian, that's how high her ceiling is." Whether Jessie chooses to pursue tennis or hockey—or both—one thing is for certain about our 2010 SportsKid of the Year. The sky is the limit.
Photos: Heinz Kluetmeier