Beyond Box Scores: A mentor in the family
By Rob Daniels
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Nobody asks Bill James if he's related to LeBron.
A couple of years ago, Ari Lysacek realized introductions would never be the same, and she was more than happy to say that, yes, she is kin to Evan Lysacek, world champion figure skater. Cousins, to be precise. Closer than some siblings, in fact.
When Evan rolled through town last weekend to participate in the U.S. national figure skating championships, the audience at the Greensboro Coliseum and the NBC viewership saw an Olympic champion and reality-TV celebrity. But one UNCG volleyball player had a more profound connection, one that has lasted a lifetime and has helped create her own diligence-driven success story.
"I've learned everything I know (in sports) from him," said Ari Lysacek, a sophomore from Newport Beach, Calif., who led an improved Spartan team in assists this past fall. "We're the two biggest athletes in the family, and he has always been there. He's the hardest working person I know. He will not stop until he gets something right. That's the main reason I go early to practice or stay late if a teammate needs help."
The cousins, six years apart in age, were able to spend some time together in recent weeks – both here and at a family vacation in Idaho over semester break. And theirs is not idle chat. It often focuses around competition and challenges, pressure and perseverance, breakthroughs and bonds.
Ari's parents divorced when she was young, and she's an only child who values relationships with a large set of cousins. They include 25-year-old Evan, whose father, Don Lysacek, is the twin brother of Ari's dad, Richard. Partially because of Evan's guidance, Ari now takes pride in mentoring a younger cousin in California.
In 2003, Evan moved from his native Chicago to the Los Angeles area to train for a promising pro career. Lacking sponsorship, he moved in with his uncle, often occupying Ari's room in Richard's home while Ari resided with her mom.
"For quite a while in 2003," she recalled. "I would be with my mom a lot, but when I would go to my dad's, I would see (Evan.) As I got older, we got closer and on a more mature level."
Evan is now a two-time national champion, a gold medalist in the 2010 Olympics, a "Dancing With the Stars" finalist, a fundraiser for cancer research and a corporate pitchman for at least three international brands.
Ari made her own career decision at about the same time Evan's skating fortunes improved. Without her knowledge or even previously expressed interest, she found herself enrolled – mom's call – in a volleyball clinic one day. Having played soccer since the age of 4, she didn't feel the need to explore other athletics avenues. She questioned mom on why this was such a great idea.
By the end of the day, that was apparent. Club coaches began approaching her, asking about her background in volleyball and encouraging her to use her growing physical frame in a new game.
"I felt really guilty," she said, "because I had given my mom such a hard time about it. Haven't put a volleyball down since."
In those early days of migration from the field to the court, she sought counsel from Evan, who was in training for the 2004 World Junior Championships. He won a silver medal at that event, and he could speak first-hand about handling a transition. His involved coaching and moving to a new city, but issues such as apprehension are common to all competitors.
For Ari, career advancement wouldn't come easily. Midway through her senior year of high school, her five classmates on the team had secured college scholarships. She had feelers and visits but nothing certain or entirely appealing.
She took a different type of gamble in Las Vegas by attending a showcase event geared toward high school seniors in her precise recruiting situation. The UNCG staff at the time was there, too, having recently needed a setter who could contribute immediately. Within days, she had travel plans.
"I wasn't sure at first, but I came on a visit and fell in love," she said. "Yeah, it's a long way from home, but I figured the experience would be a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Three days after she graduated from Newport Harbor High School, she was back on a plane to Greensboro. This time, several weeks before her 18th birthday, she'd stick around. She enrolled in two summer classes, got to know her new teammates and get acclimated to an entirely new town.
"I'll admit it: I was scared," she said. "I did not want to go right away. I still needed my parents to sign legal documents for things."
Evan's background was again of some help here. Hadn't he left home for a coast and found success? It could be done.
Ari Lysacek experienced a coaching change, a new level of play and other distractions in her first few months at UNCG, but it's working out quite nicely. The Spartans went from 17-14 in 2009 to 22-12 this past season and seem to have developed a solid core of young players.
The coaching staff asked Lysacek to remain in campus housing this academic year to help six current freshmen in their transition process, and she eagerly agreed.
Back home, Ari Lysacek's 13-year-old cousin, Olivia Berriz, has taken up the game and is able to enjoy the Spartans' matches via the Internet.
"I've always looked up to Arielle," Berriz said. "She's a hard worker, a great athlete and a loving cousin. I hope I can inspire others by my actions as my cousin has inspired me."
Perhaps not so coincidentally, a pattern is developing here.
"It's an honor to be looked at by one of my younger cousins," Ari said. "It's really touching. It has helped me mature. I never knew I could have such an impact on someone. It's kind of the way Evan impacted me."
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