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

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.

Commenting on the event for the Canadian Broadcasting Co., he watched her opening jumps, all performed flawlessly, and said: “Having seen so many skaters in so many competitions, there is a certain radar you can detect when you watch a skater. You can almost detect a champion or a championship look. Jesse has that look, no doubt about it.”

She was not perfect. In the middle of her program, she bailed out of one triple jump and slipped on the landing of another, preventing a fall only by balancing herself with her hands on the ice. No matter. Cranston was smitten.

“Apart from the lack of strength--and that strength will come--there is no doubt that this girl’s attractive presence on the ice is a winning combination,” he said. “She has exactly the right sort of body, the right kind of personality, the right kind of facial expression. This is the sort of package one expects from a future world or Olympic champion.”

After the scores were posted, and Jessica was crowned, Cranston continued to rave.

“The Americans always seem to come up with what amounts to the perfect combination--a gorgeous body with a head that looks like a movie star,” he said. “She looked a little like Jessica Lange. I think we’re seeing another Dorothy Hamill out there.”

Such expectations could prove a heavy load for a 5-foot 2-inch, 100-pound teen-ager. Almost overnight, she has become the target for all other juniors who are trying to make names for themselves.

But winning the world junior championship does not guarantee future success. Among recent junior champions from the United States, Elaine Zayak (1979), Rosalyn Sumners ('80) and Tiffany Chin ('81) became Olympians, but Jill Sawyer ('78) and Suzie Brasher ('76) never made it.

In fact, winning the world junior championship did not even guarantee Jessica an invitation to this winter’s national junior championships. She had to finish among the top four at the Pacific Coast sectionals this weekend at Seattle to advance to the national competition, Feb. 7-12 at Baltimore.

“She doesn’t have a lock on anything,” Susan said last week. “There are a lot of good little girls on the West Coast. Jesse is just one of them.”

Susan understands better than most mothers the hazards along the road to becoming an Olympian because of Phoebe’s gymnastics experiences. Within a year after the 1984 Summer Olympics, Kristie Phillips, 13 at the time, was promoted by her coach, Karolyi, as the next Mary Lou. But in 1988, Phillips, still only 16, made the U.S. team only as a second alternate, while another Karolyi Kid, Phoebe, emerged as the star.

“Jesse’s fortunate because her family has been through this before,” said Roles, who also has experience in this arena as the women’s individual bronze medalist in the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Games and the coach of fifth-place Lisa Marie-Allen in 1980 at Lake Placid.

“Besides,” Roles said, “she’s always got me breathing down her back.”

When they returned from Sarajevo, Roles said that she told Jessica: “This is a steppingstone. It’s like you’ve graduated from junior high. Now you have to go to high school.”

So far, Jessica seems to have placed her world title in the proper perspective. Sipping hot tea recently at the Silver Skates Restaurant in Harbor City, she said: “You can’t let it give you a big head. Now I have a name, and I have to live up to it. I have to work even harder.”

If she indeed does work harder, it will make her mother happy.

“I’m wondering how she’ll respond,” Susan said. “She’s just starting to get the confidence that is necessary for extraordinary skating. I just hope it motivates her to expend greater energy. She’ll always be there when the bell rings, but she’s not a workaholic.”

No one would guess that she is Phoebe’s sister from watching them compete in their respective sports. Phoebe, who acts as if it hurts her face to smile when she is in the gym, is a competitor who has to perform. Jessica, who acts on the ice as if she is the guest of honor at a party, is a performer who has to compete.

“Out of sports, Phoebe is the most fun person to be around,” Jessica said. “But when she’s in the gym, she’s very serious. She doesn’t even think about what city she’s in, or that she’d like to have extra friends or that she might want this and that. She’s in Texas to train, and that’s what she does. She’s a perfectionist.”

And Jesse?

“I don’t want to say anything too cocky, but I’m easier to be around when I’m training,” she said.

Charisma, Roles said, is the quality that separates Jessica from other skaters her age.

“That’s a gift,” she said.

“Poetic talent,” Susan called it.

“Figure skating combines all that Jesse’s about,” Susan said. “She can put her athletic ability together with her ability to perform. She loves being on stage.”

Jessica discovered figure skating when she was 6 while on a family vacation in Vail, Colo., where her grandmother and uncle took her to see recreational skaters at an outdoor rink.

“My mouth dropped open,” Jessica said.

Susan remembers that day with mixed emotions. She gained a figure skater but lost a speed skater. If it were her choice, instead of Jessica’s, Susan would rather have a speed skater. She already has at least two. The oldest children, Nathaniel, 18, and Hilary, 17, are national team members with aspirations of competing in the 1992 Winter Games. The youngest children, Lucas, 9, and Whitaker, 7, both adopted, have also been introduced to the sport.

Phoebe still holds a world age-group record in speed skating, and Jessica won third place both indoors and outdoors in national age-group meets. But neither wanted to continue training for the sport after discovering her other interest.

After Jessica won the world junior championship, Susan said, “Now that she has the trophy, she can come home and start speed skating.”

When the conversation was relayed to Jessica, she laughed and said, “She’s just kidding.”

Maybe not.

“I’ve always tried to discourage Jesse from figure skating,” Susan said. “We used to have to get up at 5 a.m. and drive to Janesville for her to train. I always thought that she would say, ‘You’re getting me up too early; it’s too far to drive; I don’t want to do this any more.’ But it never happened. Unfortunately.

“She’d still be a good speed skater if she wanted to do that. There’s good speed skating in Southern California. I told her that she could do both. But she threw a tantrum. Phoebe’s the same way. What can I do?”

It certainly would be less expensive if Phoebe and Jessica returned home. Chris told Sports Illustrated last year that it costs $53,000 a year to keep his children at an elite level in sports, $45,000 of it for Phoebe and Jessica. Besides his salary as legal counsel for the Chicago and Northwestern Transportation Co., he said that they support the effort with money from family stock and an inheritance. Susan said that they also have received grants from the Women’s Sports Foundation and the U.S. Gymnastics Federation.

“We never think about it in terms of expenses,” Susan said. “If the kids want to do this, we’ll manage. They have to supply the heart. We have to supply the support system. That’s our responsibility as parents.”

Support is not limited to finances. When Phoebe was having a difficult time in 1986, Susan took her youngest child and moved to Houston for 2 years. She said that she probably will move to California at a crucial point in Jessica’s career.

For now, Jessica lives with a supportive family in Harbor City, has a tutor to help her daily with her ninth-grade correspondence courses and does not appear to have suffered socially from her involvement in figure skating.

“When you see her on the dance floor, you don’t feel that she’s been too sheltered,” Roles said.

As much as she misses her family, Jessica said that she would have missed so many other things that are valuable to her if she had stayed at home.

“My family has made it easy for me to live away from home,” she said. “With most parents, it wouldn’t be easy. But mine have been wonderful about it. When I think about everything I’ve done, there’s no question that I’m glad I moved away.

“Even though I’m only 14, I’ve already had more experiences than a lot of people will have in their whole lives. I don’t have the social life of a lot of other teen-agers, but I have friends all over the world. So my life is not boring.”

Besides, she said, she talks to at least one of her parents every night on the telephone.

Well, almost every night.

She did not call them after she won the world junior championship until she returned to California from Sarajevo.

“The hotel wouldn’t let me make a collect call,” she said. “I had already called them twice earlier in the week, and it cost $78.”