Atlanta Journal Constitution – Feb 17, 2006 – Bo Emerson – You wouldn’t know it by watching the Winter Olympics, but love among sports stars is often star-crossed.
Not that it makes any difference to the speed skaters, biathletes, skeleton sliders and skiers all busy pitching woo in the Italian Alps.
MIA HAMM (soccer) and NOMAR GARCIAPARRA (baseball) Married: 2003. Hamm, one of the greatest female soccer players ever, led the U.S. team to gold in the 2004 Olympics, then retired. Garciaparra, who was a first-round pick for the Red Sox in 1994 after playing for Georgia Tech. He signed with the L.A. Dodgers last year. His first name is his father’s name, Ramon, spelled backwards.
STEFFI GRAF and ANDRE AGASSI (tennis) Married: 2001. Two children. The ultimate love match in the world of tennis between the former No. 1 woman and former No. 1 man.
Olympic gold medal gymnasts Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci married in 1996. More matchups of top athletes.
Cupid is working overtime in Turin, where ice dancers Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov are the current poster couple for Olympic romance. They met on the Internet in the summer of 2000, each seeking a skating partner. He flew to Denver from his native Russia, took one look and sang “God Bless America.” They began making beautiful music together very shortly thereafter.
“It felt right, and we didn’t care what anybody else thought,” Gregory told the Los Angeles Daily News.
But the course of true love never does run smooth. Especially if the lovers are too busy running wind sprints to run a household.
“I know this from experience,” said John F. Murray, a Palm Beach, Fla., sports psychologist. “Professional athletes need a lot of support, they need somebody at home, somebody supporting them emotionally, somebody to get the details taken care of. If you have two prima donnas, how are you going to manage that? It seems like it’s double the challenge. One of them almost has to play the support role.”
That’s why marriage between world-class athletes is rare, and the tennis romance between Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi seems the exception rather than the rule.
Even under the best of circumstances, when one half of the couple is willing to play second fiddle, the life of a professional athlete is hard on relationships. Baseball rosters, for instance, are littered with home-run kings who struck out at home.
The statistics, according to Gena James Pitts, can be depressing.
Some 80 percent of athletes are divorced and in debt by the end of their careers, she says. Pitts of Alpharetta is the wife of former Falcons player Mike Pitts and creator of Professional Sports Wives Magazine, a publication dedicated to the spouses of professional U.S. athletes. She says few of those wives are athletes themselves. “There are a lot of wives who have dropped their careers or their aspirations to support their husbands’ career.”
A notable exception is golfing champion Nancy Lopez and infielder (and Georgia native) Ray Knight, who married in 1982 and are the only married couple in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Knight and Lopez continued to compete during the 1980s. Lopez won tournaments even as their three children were born, and Knight hit the winning run for the Mets in Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. They settled in Albany, Knight’s hometown.
In the more familiar scenario, one member of the couple is likely to give up competing professionally shortly after wedding bells ring.
For example, soccer superstar Mia Hamm and Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra married in November 2003, and the following spring, she announced she’d retire at the end of the year. Hamm went out with a bang, leading the women’s soccer team to gold at the 2004 Olympics. Garciaparra signed with the Dodgers after last season.
Similarly, Graf and Agassi married two years after Graf retired.
Then there are the careers that get put on hold as marriage and children take precedence over training and world travel. Buford resident Steve Weber is a top amateur bowler. His wife, Beverly, was a rising regional bowling star when they lived in New Orleans. As his career took off, she stayed home with their daughter and got a nursing license for the steady income.
“All the couples that I know of, especially the ones who have kids, usually one of them has to make sacrifice of competing less,” Steve said. “Nine times out of 10, it’s the wife that does it.”
After Hurricane Katrina destroyed their St. Bernard Parish home, the couple moved to Atlanta with Kayla, now 18.
“I’m happy standing behind him, to be honest with you,” said Beverly, speaking by telephone from New Jersey, where her husband was competing this week in the U.S. Open. “I enjoy it. I like both worlds; I like to be able to stay home and do things with my daughter and have a normal life, but I also like to travel with him and see different places.”
Another pair of bowlers, Chris and Lynda Barnes of Flower Mound, Texas, manage to collect strikes without sending their union into the gutter. She was the No. 1 amateur last year; he was the No. 2 pro.
She had to travel 100 days out of the year, and in the meantime, they had twin toddlers at home.
“We called in all the troops,” Chris said. “My mom in Kansas, her mom in California. Each took a turn.”
Chris suggested that, despite the challenges, the upside of sharing a career with a spouse is the increased ability to empathize through shared experience.
“We have a level of understanding that probably doesn’t happen between too many couples,” he said.
Also, he said, “It’s cool to watch her beat the best players in the world.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.