High-Flying Household

The multitalented Mills clan of Northfield, Ill., has some pretty lofty goals in life, among them the Olympics
June 21, 1987

Chris and Susan Mills of Northfield, Ill., say they didn't set out to breed an Olympic team the size and scope of a small island nation's. But with an encouraging word here, an impelling shout there, some love and lots of financial aid, things just...evolved. Two of their children are off training in Texas and California, and two more will soon be off to train in Montana, Colorado and Wisconsin, which could keep Mom and Dad on the motivational move through the '90s. Thanks to sports, the Mills's most binding family tie is their Sprint number.

In their devotion to world-class goals, the Millses sometimes seem more like a team than a family, with the parents aggressively at the helm. The children claim that they are different from most driven siblings, however, because they have been allowed to pursue self-expression through sports, that their parents never declared any specific goals for their progeny, only that they go forward. The kids have taken it from there. At the U.S. Olympic Festival last summer in Houston, two of the Mills children won a total of four silver medals and two team golds. Naturally that led to Olympic aspirations in the Mills clan. Here's a frequent flier's guide to this diverse—and diffuse—pack:

•Phoebe, 14, a gymnast, is the family's inspiration. She's one of the tiniest of the offspring—all of 4'6", 70 pounds—and the toughest. In her field, she's the most developed, too, rating just a few moves behind Kristie Phillips among U.S. female gymnasts. Susan Mills lives in Houston with Phoebe, who trains along with Kristie under the demanding gaze of coach Bela Karolyi. Phoebe is a near lock for the '88 Olympic team and has a good chance to win a medal.

•Nathaniel, 17, a speed skater, is the eldest child. Speed skating is basic training for the Mills kids, and Nathaniel, a member of the national outdoor team, has taken to it like a die-hard leatherneck. A long shot for the '88 Olympics, Nathaniel should just be hitting his gliding stride by the '92 Winter Games. Nathaniel, who just graduated from high school, plans to take a year off to train in such places as Butte, Mont., Calgary and Milwaukee.

•Hilary, 16, is a speed skater, too, though she hasn't taken to skating's solitude as Nathaniel has. Still, she is on the national outdoor team, won a gold in the 3,000-meter relay at the Olympic Festival and will train this summer in Butte and Colorado Springs. This fall she will commute from Northfield to Milwaukee five to six days a week so she can train at the Olympic Ice Rink.

•Jessica (known as Jesse), 13, sharpens her figure skating skills in Torrance, Calif. She has been away from home the longest—since age nine—and has stayed with various families, one of which wasn't very helpful. She trains with Barbara Roles, a bronze medalist at the 1960 Games, and lives with Al and Afa Soltani, an Iranian couple whose two daughters are Jesse's best friends. Although Jesse is not as accomplished as her siblings, Chris claims she's the best athlete of his brood.

•And then there are the Mills's two adopted sons, who split time between Chris in Northfield and Susan in Houston. Lucas, 8, who's equal parts Irish, German, black and Apache, favors soccer, while Whitaker, 6, who's half black, half Russian, prefers hockey. Both speed skate. Says Chris, "We're out to prove it's not all hereditary."

The Mills parents have encouraged the kids to disperse in order to find the best coaching, while at the same time they have maintained a family closeness across thousands of miles. All the while they have meted out motivation like vitamin pills. It costs $53,000 annually to keep Team Mills purring. The children are well-backed in other fields as well. They are encouraged to study piano and Latin, and high scholastic grades are the norm. Sacrifice has become the family code; skate blades and beads of sweat form the family crest.

At what costs have these pursuits come? The folks have tailored their lives to suit their youngsters' dreams and, to some extent, their own as well. Chris, 43, a legal counsel for the Chicago and North Western Transportation Co., says, "Initially it [athletics] was something that brought the family together. Little did we know it was going to take us so far apart. But that's where our goals led us." Says Susan, 45, who has a master's degree in psychology and an undergraduate degree in physical education and is the kids' sports mastermind, "Sports are a religion, right? You learn all the same things."

Susan Sofferin was a speech pathologist from Detroit 19 winters ago when she met Chris Mills, a law student. From a ski lift on Boyne Mountain, Mich., Susan spied Chris navigating Hemlock run on his right leg; he had lost his left leg in a tractor accident at 13. When she saw him struggling after a fall, she swept down to help him. "He impressed me," she recalls. "I knew we both had positive outlooks on life." Three months later they were married.

Both wanted to build their life around raising their children, and sports seemed a good medium for instilling their values: sacrifice, support and success. In 1971 Chris had won the national amputee ski championship. Susan had been a nine-letter winner at Mumford High in Detroit. "I was good at sports, and that feeds upon itself," she says.

In 1979 the Millses found the perfect venue for their kids in the Northbrook Speed Skating Club. "We thought it [speed skating] would be a good foundation for any sport they wanted," Chris says. So every Tuesday and Thursday the Millses would pack off to practice, transplanting the family circle to an oval of ice. Susan would dictate the pace. "From the first time we stepped on the ice, she was on us," Nathaniel recalls. "She wouldn't get off us until the last minute. But that's without a doubt why everyone is doing what they're doing."

Because she now lives in Houston, Susan sees her husband only about nine times a year—when he's on business in Texas, or when Phoebe's away competing and they can sneak away for "little honeymoons." She also makes certain that she talks to each of her children every day. Stressing that "support is what it's all about," Susan props up her child-athlete in greatest need.

At the moment that's Phoebe, who is competing in a national gymnastics meet this week in Kansas City. Phoebe had drifted away from speed skating and toward gymnastics ("I was always hyper, flipping around the house, bouncing off beds"). In 1983, she headed to Texas—at first for a few months, then until the '88 Games—to work with Karolyi. She wandered through three different families in three years.

Phoebe is a technically sound, balanced gymnast whose self-confidence is crucial to her success. But the nomadic life had taken its toll. When Susan visited Phoebe in Houston in 1986 she saw her daughter wobbling on the balance beam and barely swinging on the uneven bars. "Living with other people, I didn't have that family-mother-loving feeling I have now," Phoebe recalls. "I couldn't be me, I had to be on my best behavior."

So Susan rented a two-bedroom apartment in Houston. She brought baby brother Whit to live there, too. She made sure Phoebe got extra lessons from Karolyi and his assistants, and signed up with an agent to help attract sponsors for her daughter.

While Susan tended to Phoebe in Houston, Chris kept the home fires burning in the family's rambling, 30-year-old house half an hour north of Chicago. He prefers not to talk about what his kids' sporting talents have cost him. Dollar signs, he feels, put too much pressure on them. But Chris admits that thanks to some family stock, an inheritance and his salary, he can afford to spend $25,000 annually for Jesse's pursuits, $20,000 for Phoebe's and another $8,000 combined for Nathaniel's and Hilary's. "We can never save, but what better way is there to spend your money?" he says with a shrug. "The kids learn so many life lessons. They travel, they learn how to lose, they learn how to win, they learn how to handle pressure, how to organize their time."

Nathaniel, a well-built 6'2" and 175 pounds, is a serious lad, silently driven. At first he wasn't a very successful speed skater, but when he saw his sisters bringing home ribbons and trophies, he dug in. Outwardly he has his father's quiet confidence; inside burns his mother's competitive fervor. "She's the key to our success," Nathaniel says simply. When he's in a slump, he calls her. "She mainly talks to me about what a great athlete I am, that my time will come."

Hilary, too, has begun to believe. For years she was the least aggressive child, lost among her siblings' accomplishments. But gradually she grew frustrated enough with her speed skating that she started to push. "Mom's the one who tells us how we want to do good and how we should do good," Hilary says, "but it's really us who set the goals." Her sights are now trained on the Olympic speed skating team.

By everyone's account but her own, Jesse has paid the highest price for Team Mills's dream-chasing. "We don't hear much about her because she isn't winning, or anything," Hilary says. At five, Jesse practically settled her future; she fell in love with figure skating while watching it during a visit to Colorado with her grandmother.

"You get to express yourself on the ice and play with the audience, and I like that kind of stuff," Jesse says. When she was nine she lived in Janesville, Wis., on weekdays to train. Two years later, when her coach moved to Boston, she did, too. Last fall, she switched to Roles and California.

Along the way Jesse has lived with a number of families. Once, she ran into difficulty and called her parents, who found her a new home. "Of course we're anxious," Susan says. "But it's part of the price. You weigh things. You make rationalizations." Says Afa Soltani, Jesse's current surrogate mom, "She keeps everything inside her, that one."

On the ice rink, Jesse is most content. A popular skater at the Olympic Ice Arena in Harbor City, she carves figure eights for hours, tries any move and takes on extra work. "She's willing to explore, and that's the big thing at this age," Roles says. Says Susan, "As long as she's still growing as a skater, it pays off. She'll keep doing it until she stops paying the price."

So far the price has been one that the 13-year-old seems able to handle. "A lot of times I've felt like I want to go home and never come back," Jesse says. "But I'd look at my skating and see how it's gotten better."

Because of her age and talent, Phoebe has become the torch bearer for Team Mills's Olympic aspirations. Her parents see in her living proof that hard work and sacrifice can pay off and she is a reflection of the family's commitment to the team. But is that what sports for kids is all about? It's a question one hopes that Susan and Chris Mills—and all other parents like them—ask themselves frequently. Says Hilary with a tinge of uncertainty, "If there weren't sports, we'd be a normal family."

PHOTOLANE STEWARTPhoebe (aloft) and, from left, Chris, Hilary, Susan, Jesse, Whitaker, Nathaniel, Lucas. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROJesse cuts a trim figure in Harbor City; Nathaniel (right) cycled to hone his skating. PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOWhitaker's a hockey man.
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