Sports is often a family business. We’ve seen the sports gene at work in the Manning, Earnhardt, Hull, Griffey, and Andretti families. We’ve even seen families like the Hills (Calvin and Grant), Larkins (Barry and Shane), Halls (swimmers Gary Sr. and Gary Jr.), and Joneses (Popeye and Seth) where junior has excelled in a different way than dad.
In all of those families a father passed down his love of sport and athletic prowess to his son. But sometimes the athletic talents and passions come from the other side of the family.
With Mother’s Day coming up, it’s time to celebrate the moms who have been successful athletes at the professional or international level and have passed on their talents to their sons and/or daughters.
Here are six mothers from the world of sports whose kids were blessed with mom’s athletic gifts.
Evelyn and Carl Lewis
If you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s, you know track star Carl Lewis. In his 1984 Olympic debut Lewis won gold in the 100, 200, 4 x 100 relay, and long jump. Four years later he defended his wins in the 100 (after winner Ben Johnson was disqualified for doping) and took silver in the 200. Lewis would win another three gold medals in the 1990s, bringing his count to nine gold and one silver.
Lewis is arguably the greatest track and field athlete in modern history. But he wasn’t the first person in his family to be a world-class track star.
Carl’s mom Evelyn—who was Evelyn Lawler before she married Carl’s father, Bill—excelled as a jumper and hurdler for Tuskegee University and Team USA in the early 1950s. She finished sixth in the 80-meter hurdles at the first Pan American Games in 1951. That same year at a meet in Chile, she won the event and set a new Western Hemisphere record with a time of 11.3 seconds.
By 1952, Lawler was among the world’s best in the 80-meter hurdles, but injuries kept her from competing in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Her Olympic dream wouldn’t be realized until 32 years later when her son brought home four gold medals from the games in Los Angeles.
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Pam and JaVale McGee
We know JaVale McGee for mastering the art of goal-tending, running back on defense while his team is still on offense, and throwing an alley-oop to himself then celebrating with a fingerstache.
We also know him as a skilled, high-energy big man who plays important minutes off the bench for the Denver Nuggets.
Comes by his size, skill, and energy honestly.
JaVale’s mother, Pam, was an All-American basketball player at USC in the early 1980s and played for the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s basketball team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. After playing professionally overseas for several years, Pam McGee returned to the States, where—at the age of 34—she was the second overall pick in the inaugural 1997 WNBA Draft. She played two seasons with the Sacramento Monarchs and Los Angeles Sparks.
Helga, Dirk, and Silke Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki is an NBA champion, former NBA MVP, an 11-time All-Star and All-NBA selection, and a future Hall of Famer.
Helga Nowitzki, Dirk’s mother, played professional ball back in the 1960s and was a member of the 1966 West German women’s national team.
Dirk’s dad, Jörg-Werner Nowitzki, was one of Germany’s best team handball players. But the Nowitzki kids favored their mother’s sport.
While Dirk’s accomplishments are well known, his older sister, Silke Nowitzki, was also quite a player. Before Dirk made his professional debut with the DJK Würzburg men’s team, Silke helped the women’s team make the jump into the top tier of German basketball. In 1998 her DJK Würzburg team qualified for the Ronchetti Cup (now known as EuroCup Women). Like her mother, Silke also spent time on the German national team.
Silke moved to the U.S. in 2001 to work for the NBA. Since 2006 she has worked as Dirk’s manager.
May Sutton and Dodo Cheney
May Sutton was the first American to win a singles title at Wimbledon. She won at the All England Club in 1905 and again in 1907. In 1904 Sutton swept the U.S. Open, winning the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles.
Twenty-three years after Sutton became the first player from the States to win Wimbledon, her daughter, Dorothy “Dodo” Cheney, became the first American to win the women’s singles championship at the Australian Open. It was Cheney’s only Grand Slam title, but she advanced to the semifinals of each of the other three Slams at least once and played in seven Grand Slam doubles and mixed doubles finals.
Cheney, who is alive and living in California, continued playing competitive tennis into her 90s and has won more than 300 United States Tennis Association senior titles.
Helen Callaghan and Casey Candaele
If you’ve seen A League of Their Own, you know about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), the women’s baseball league founded during World War II when many male ballplayers were serving in the military. One of the more than 600 women who played in the AAGPBL between 1943 and 1954 also happened to be the mother of a Major Leaguer.
Helen Callaghan played five seasons with the Minnesota Millerettes, the Fort Wayne Daisies, and the Kenosha Comets. She stole 354 bases in 388 AAGPBL games.
Callaghan had five sons, one of whom was Casey Candaele, who played 754 Major League games in nine seasons with the Montreal Expos, Houston Astros, and Cleveland Indians. I remember Candaele from his days with the Indianapolis Indians, the Expos’ AAA farm team at the time.
For his career Candaele batted .250/.308/.332. His mother hit .257/.359/.319. See? Genetics at work.
Another of Callaghan’s sons, Kelly Candaele, produced the 1987 PBS documentary A League of Their Own about the AAGPBL, which inspired director Penny Marshall to make the 1992 feature film of the same name.
Ann Packer and Ian and David Brightwell
The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo got off to a rough start for engaged British runners Ann Packer and Robbie Brightwell. Packer had hoped to win the 400 meters, her best event, but had to settle for a silver medal. Brightwell, who also specialized in the 400, failed to medal in the men’s race, finishing fourth. Brightwell did end up winning silver in the 4 x 400 relay.
But the couple had one more chance at Olympic glory. Packer had also qualified for the 800, a race that she had only run a few times. “Women’s middle-distance running was in its infancy then,” Packer told the Guardian in 2008, “but unwittingly, I was perfectly prepared because I was a sprinter, and there wasn’t that type of athlete in the 800 metres at the time.”
Packer held her own in the prelims and semifinals, but she didn’t finish better than third in either heat. She was able to harness her sprinter’s speed in the final, making up for a slow start by whizzing past her competitors in the second half of the race. Packer not only won gold in the 800, she set a world record.
Packer, only 22 at the time, retired shortly after the 1964 Games. She and Brightwell married and had three children, two of whom would become professional soccer players.
Ian Brightwell made his professional debut as an 18-year-old with Manchester City in 1986. Ian played twelve seasons as a defender for Man City and another eight with an assortment of other English clubs. Ian’s younger brother David joined him on the Manchester City Roster in 1988. Ian played in 321 games with City, scoring 18 goals. David played only 44 games in seven seasons in Manchester, and another 13 on loan to other teams. He played six more years with a variety of Football League clubs.
The Brightwells helped City earn promotion out of the Second Division and into Football League Division One in 1989. A few years later, Manchester City would become one of the founding members of the Premier League.