illustration of trophies and medals.

The Making of a Professional Athlete

Very few youth athletes go on to make a career of their sport. For the ones who do, it takes time, support, and money—not to mention passion and raw talent. Families of rising young sports stars share their stories.

T.C. Lewis always knew his son Julian "Ju Ju" would be an athlete, but it wasn't until a preschool teacher called him with a very specific concern that he knew exactly what kind of athlete. "Mr. Lewis, Ju Ju is the sweetest kid ever," the teacher told him. "There's only one problem. He throws everything. We tell them to put things away in their cubbies, and he tries to throw it across the room into the cubby."

Ju Ju is now a 14-year-old quarterback, ranked No. 1 in the class of 2026. The African American Marietta, Georgia native has a team of seven coaches and trainers who he works with on a regular basis. As an eighth-grader, he has three private quarterback trainers, a speed coach, a strength coach, an agility coach, and a seventh person who helps in a mysterious role. "I can't give away the whole team," says his dad. "Some of this stuff is like, secret!"

An image of Julian Lewis.
Brian Carmichael.

Konnor McClain went viral when she was just 4 years old, when her parents uploaded a YouTube video of her doing advanced gymnastics skills. She's now 16, and recently competed for the U.S. at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. She was on the brink of quitting the sport altogether until she decided this past May to move across the country to train at a new gym. The family packed up in a rush and drove from Cross Lanes, West Virginia to Plano, Texas, a choice that ended up saving her promising gymnastics career.

50th FIG Artistic Gymnastics Championships - Day 1
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Before the move, Konnor was known for getting so nervous that she'd puke right before getting on the balance beam in competition. Her nerves were so bad that sometimes she'd get sick at practice too. Her mom, Lorinda, is always worrying if she's doing the right thing for Konnor, but those fears ran wild when they decided to leave Konnor's old gym and move to Texas to train with Valeri Liukin, father and coach of Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin. Is this really necessary? she wondered.

"As parents, we don't know. No one gives you a guidebook on this," says Lorinda McClain. "We just thought it was her nerves and before beam, she got sick." But shortly after their move to Texas, Lorinda realized it wasn't just Konnor's nerves, but it was the whole environment of her old gym, which had become toxic for her daughter during the pandemic. According to McClain, Konnor was the one who requested a move, telling her parents that her long-time coach, Susan Brown, and her husband, Randy, brought politics into the gym (this was confirmed in the Peacock docuseries Golden), which made her uncomfortable, especially because she was the only Black gymnast in her training group.

"Maybe a week or two after she had been working out here [in Texas], she said, 'Mom, I haven't been sick at practice one time!' And I was like wow, again, my heart is swelling and I'm like, we did the right thing!" says McClain.

At just 13 years old, Alysa Liu, a Chinese American figure skater from California, landed three triple axels at the U.S. National Championships on her way to her first national title. She became the youngest national champion and was instantly anointed as the prodigy to bring U.S. ladies figure skating back to glory.

Two-and-a-half years later, Alysa is now 16 and finally old enough to qualify for the 2022 Olympics. She's lived another lifetime in that short time. She's about seven inches taller, standing around 5'2" now, she's working with a new team of coaches after spending 10 years with the first coach who taught her how to skate, and she's made it through the most challenging season of her career in 2020, when ice time in her hometown of Oakland, California was extremely limited due to COVID-19 restrictions and she had to relearn many of her jumps because of her growth spurt.

An image of Alysa Liu.
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"Right now, she is a completely different person," says her coach, Massimo Scali. "She is not a little kid anymore. She is a young woman. Things change and she had to readjust and relearn so many things that were bringing different feelings into the skating and into the jumps. The most important thing we keep reminding her is that the best way for her to feel confident in what she does is to put as little pressure as possible in whatever we do."

These three elite athletes are still kids, but they have already set themselves apart from their competition, with a combination of natural talent, resources, support, and active parental supervision. "Being a parent of an elite level athlete, it is not glamorous," McClain says. "I hear a lot of negative stuff and I think no, you just don't know. It's not a glamorous life, we are doing the best we can do for her."

McClain says if Konnor wanted to quit this past spring, she would have supported her in that, but she wanted it to be because she didn't love gymnastics anymore, not because she didn't love the training environment she was in. Lewis picked out football for his son at a young age, but he says there are days when he wants Ju Ju to rest, only to walk into his room to find him throwing the football while laying in bed.

"I was never like, 'Hey, you have to do this,'" says Lewis. "I've got videos of him in the living room throwing the ball at the couch… He has just had it in his hand his whole life. That's his thing. I think when kids figure out they are gifted at something, not just being made to do something, then it becomes their passion—[They feel] this thing is fun to me, I am good at it, people respect me for my ability."

COVID-19 Completely Changed the Training Game

Liu used to travel with Alysa wherever she went, and so did McClain with Konnor, but the pandemic has forced them to stay home more than usual even when competition travel resumed for their kids. McClain says she tried everything she could to go to Kitakyushu, Japan with Konnor this October for the World Championships. She even called the consulate, who she says told her, "You are not a special circumstance, you are just a mom." So Konnor made her first trip without her mom by her side.

The pandemic was hard on both Alysa and Konnor, because it made their training more isolated. Instead of working in a group in the gym or on the ice, in a social environment, they were mostly alone in their training sessions. In Oakland, the ice rink where Alysa trained closed down entirely, so she traveled to Delaware to train at a rink there until her home rink reopened. And when it did, the ice time was limited because skaters could no longer share the ice. Scali says that he and Alysa put together most of her programs for last season outside in public parks. He'd bring a speaker and play the music and FaceTime her program's choreographer, who was in Canada.

"In interviews they ask her, 'So last season was a bad season?'" says Scali. "And we all look at each other and say, 'No, last season was a miracle!' It was an amazing season, but people don't know what was behind it … It was an extremely tough time. That's why we still consider that season a success, no matter what the placement was at nationals."

An image of Alysa Liu smiling.
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McClain says that Konnor was able to keep training with one other gymnast, but the pandemic affected her through the trickle-down stress from her old coach, whose only business is the gym. "When that shut down, and I totally understand that, if you own a small business, that is your life, that is your income, and I think it really put them on the edge, which had a direct effect on Konnor—that anxiety that they were feeling," says McClain. "That aspect of it was very hard for her, to catch their feedback and catch their anxiety. It never got any better from there, so I think it had gotten to the point where she was ready to find something new."

McClain asks Konnor every day after training: How was gym today? Toward the end of their time in West Virginia, Konnor would give her a thumbs up or a thumbs down, but she never wanted to talk about it. Sometimes she would cry and ask if she had to go. "When I pick her up now, she always has a story, she is laughing, she is talking about something the girls did," says McClain. "We can see how happy she is now. Talking about silly stuff that we weren't hearing before... As a mom, I'm like, 'Oh yes, right there, we did the right thing!'"

An image of Konnor McClain.
Getty Images.

Lewis says that Ju Ju actually made the most of the lockdown, because one of his private quarterback coaches, Quincy Avery, was stuck in Atlanta and couldn't travel. Avery works with several NFL quarterbacks and travels all over the country, so during the height of the pandemic, he had more time to work with Ju Ju, and Ju Ju had more time to spend training because of virtual school.

An image of Julian Lewis.
Brian Carmichael.

The Cost to Compete

McClain works as a behavioral therapist, and she says that once a gymnast is on USA Gymnastics's (USAG) national team, like Konnor is now, they can get reimbursed for all gymnastics-related expenses, like new grips or leotards, gym tuition fees, and massage therapy. But before Konnor made the national team, back when she was in USAG's pre-elite developmental program, McClain says she had to pay for everything out of pocket without any reimbursement, and her annual budget was $40,000. "The boosters were like, 'Do you want to fundraise?' And I was like, 'Well, how much would I have to do to make $40,000?'"

Alysa's dad, Arthur Liu, who works as a lawyer, estimates that it costs about $150,000 per year to support a top skater. This year, Alysa has been traveling to Egna, Italy with her coaches Scali and Jeremy Abbott, so she can train with a group of top Italian skaters, and Liu estimates his daughter's monthly expenses are around $15,000. U.S. Figure Skating has a tiered funding system to support top skaters and Liu says that Alysa received the top tier of funding when she won nationals in 2019 and 2020, but dropped down to the second tier of funding when she placed fourth last year.

T.C. Lewis, who is divorced and works in financial tech sales, says last year his expenses for Ju Ju's training and travel were higher than usual, but in general, parents should expect to commit $500 to $600 a month to train a quarterback in metro Atlanta.

Ju Ju already has three college scholarship offers, so the money Lewis is putting toward training has a clear reward at the college level, and thanks to changes to name, image, and likeness (NIL) rights, Ju Ju will be able to take marketing deals as a college athlete. To be drafted in the NFL is the ultimate goal, like the two rookie NFL quarterbacks from his home state, Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence. Konnor wants to compete at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, and she also wants to be a college gymnast, where she could land a full ride too. Alysa's dream is to be in Beijing this February competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics, a status that would catapult her to significant sponsorship money.

Parents Are a Huge Part of a Young Athlete's Story

Liu didn't know much about skating before Alysa got serious in the sport, but he learned quickly, and he was the one who convinced his daughter that she needed to make a coaching change to work on the artistic elements of her skating and focus on more than just the technical jumping that she was so good at.

"Our role is irreplaceable," says Liu. "Don't let anybody tell you to step aside and let the coaches do what they do. We need to step aside to allow the coaches to do their work, but at the same time, you need to have a watchful eye and you have to have a plan for your kid. What I did right was to have a plan for her. You advance from all the levels of skating, and then you set a goal looking at where she was, and then you come up with the next step and the next goal and then you pursue it. I think a parent's role is really important and any success story, if you ask any top athletes here in this country, I think all the parents played such an important role in their skating."

Lewis is also very active in directing Ju Ju's football career. When Ju Ju was 6 years old, Lewis started reaching out to private quarterback coaches near their Atlanta area home, but, "Nobody wanted to train him," says Lewis. "Everybody said he is too young, he is too young, wait until he gets older. It was very hard to find someone to work with, so I began training him on his own."

Father and son threw to each other in the yard every night, and when Ju Ju was 8 years old, he started working with Brandon Jones, who was a local quarterback coach at the time. Ju Ju worked with Jones twice a week, in addition to playing youth football and seven-on-seven. "Gymnasts, they start at 4 or 5, so why is quarterbacking any different?" asks Lewis. "If you are going to master something, it is going to take so long to do it. These people are professionals by the time they hit their teens."

Lewis also manages Ju Ju's schedule, because the football recruiting circuit never takes a day off. Ju Ju already has three scholarship offers and he hasn't even played varsity football. Lewis makes sure that Ju Ju takes the month of January off to rest his arm, but the remainder of his year is packed with football. This past year, Ju Ju played on a club team in the winter and a seven-on-seven team in the spring, then he attended college football camps and several invitational camps over the summer, and then went undefeated in football at Carrollton High School this fall.

"Take all that and triple it for the number of things we turn down," says Lewis. "There is definitely pressure [to do everything]."

Last year, Lewis caught wind that Joey King, who coached Trevor Lawrence, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft, in high school, was coming back to Georgia to coach at Carrollton. So he took Ju Ju out of his old school and put him in eighth grade at Carrollton middle school, paying out-of-district tuition for this year. Lewis and Ju Ju currently live in Highland, another Atlanta suburb, and this spring, he plans to move with Ju Ju to Carrollton so they can be in-district to play for the coach who had a hand in the latest QB success story. Lewis says he's always rented a house since they've lived in the Atlanta area because he always knew they would move for the best high school football experience. This will be his first time buying a home there.

"We are at a point where we are all in," says Lewis. "Whatever it takes, best trainers, best recovery, best food. He is training with the best trainers money can buy."

Professional Athletes Speak on Youth Sports

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