It’s 8 p.m. on a weeknight, and dinner at the Hemstreet family’s house has just gotten underway. They squeeze around their kitchen table, eating a hearty-looking dish of chicken and rice while chattering and joking amongst themselves. In just a little while, however, it will be time for lights out—and it won’t be much longer after that before their 5 a.m. alarm will go off, a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s time to hit the pool.
Describing the Hemstreets as a swimming family doesn’t seem to go far enough. The parents—Greg and Kathy—met in college while swimming on the varsity team at the University of Toronto. They relocated from Canada to Austin in 1989, after Greg sold his business to a company in the area. After college, Kathy went on to compete in triathlons, including the Ironman World Championship in 1996, while Greg kept up with his swimming through a Master’s team. Their children Nicholas (“Nic,” 17) and Karling (“Karli,” 15) have been swimming since the age of nine and currently train year round with the nationally renowned Nitro swim team. Both have competed on a national level; Karli even swam in the Canadian Olympic trials in 2012.
Raising two competitive swimmers would seem like plenty for one family to manage but a little over a year ago, the Hemstreets decided to up the ante by becoming a host family to 18-year-old Will Licon—a swimmer from El Paso who also trains with Nitro and who recently accepted a scholarship to swim at the University of Texas, where he will be a freshman in the fall. Like Nic and Karli Hemstreet, Licon has already made quite an impression on the swimming world: He is a member of the U.S.A. Swimming National Junior team, is world ranked, and competed at the U.S. Olympic Team trials in 2012. “We consider him part of the family,” said Greg. “His passion for swimming is contagious and fits well into our household. We are proud to know him, let alone have him as part of the family.” Those sentiments are mutual for Licon: “They honestly make me feel just like I’m home,” he said.
A typical week for the Hemstreet kids (Licon included) can mean anywhere from 20 to 30 hours of training, both in the pool and on dry land. Formal practice is every afternoon after school, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the kids hit an early morning practice as well. Even Saturday—the day of sleeping in and lounging in PJs for most teenagers—is not exempt from the alarm clock: The Hemstreets squeeze in a morning practice then, too. “So basically, anything past 6 a.m. we consider ‘sleeping in,’” joked Licon.
With such an intense schedule, an obvious question is how the three students are able to keep up their training and schoolwork (all three are enrolled at Vista Ridge High School) while still having a semblance of a social life. Tim O’Brien, national coach for Nitro Swimming, explained the philosophy he tries to impart to his athletes: “…we always emphasize being well rounded and having balance in their lives. We say there are three parts to the pie—academic, athletic, and social—and if one part of the pie is out of proportion, the other two tend to suffer. Balance is the key.”
Nic, Karli, and Will are all successful academically, relying on discipline and good time management to keep on top of their grades. On the social end of things, it helps that most of their closest friends are their fellow swimmers. “The people [on the swim team] are like our second family,” explained Karli. Nic agreed: “We sing during practice when we’re feeling bad, we make funny jokes…I know that my best friends in the world are there,” he said.
Although all three teenagers have formed the bulk of their close friendships at the pool, Nic asserted that it has been important for him to establish strong relationships outside of swimming as well: “My dynamic was that swimming was something that I did more for fun; it was my escape for everything else. And that sort of atmosphere bred me to be a lot more outgoing to nonswimmers.”
To his point, Nic is currently working toward becoming an Eagle Scout. He has maintained strong relationships with his fellow scouts over the years, many of whom he has known since kindergarten. Karli has also found a passion outside of the pool (horseback riding), which allows her to spend time with her long-time best friend.
Food—or, to be more accurate, eating the right kinds of foods—plays an important role in the Hemstreet family’s success. Making sure the kids get enough calories and nutrient-dense foods to sustain their training and keep them healthy is a responsibility that their parents take seriously. “You don’t want to know some of our grocery bills,” laughed Greg. “We go through 36 eggs a week, five gallons of milk.” The boys eat about eight to ten thousand calories a day, whereas Karli consumes a bit less. “I think we usually clear out that pantry every weekend,” joked Nic.
Although Will, Karli, and Nic eschew sodas and energy drinks, they do allow themselves the occasional indulgence, such as burgers and pizza. “We usually make them ourselves,” said Karli, who likes to snack on vegetables during the day. Nic and Will also bring a bag of food with them to school to munch on (Will’s preferred snack food is Wheat Thins), and joked that their teachers laugh at them for constantly eating. Although the three consume a considerable amount of protein, they prefer its source to come from real food rather than powders and supplements, which can sometimes have suspect ingredients.
The Hemstreets have sound advice for parents who are raising a competitive athlete: “You’ve got to constantly give them encouragement, feed them right. I believe in a relatively strict discipline about not being up late, lights out, and curfews,” said Greg. Kathy added, “Be involved in their sport, their team functions.” Greg officiates at swim meets so he can be on deck, and Kathy has helped to coordinate team events and attended many a swim practice. Above all, their own swimming background offers them unique perspective and understanding: “We can understand what they’re going through, the load that they’re carrying; we have a lot of insight to what’s happening with them and can help them with that,” said Kathy.
Licon and the younger Hemstreets have some advice of their own for kids who are pursuing their own athletic dreams: “Have fun with it,” said Licon. “If you’re sticking with something and you enjoy it, just have fun, don’t think of it as a chore. It will be over before you know it.”
Karlie agreed, saying, “Do what you love; if you’re not enjoying it, maybe…take a small break. You have to enjoy [swimming] to swim fast.”
Finally, Nic emphasized the importance of teamwork: “My favorite thing about swimming is the team; I love practices where we scream and yell for each other. Build yourself a positive environment; get rid of a negative environment. Take leadership and ownership in that.”
Coach O’Brien believes that the Hemstreets set a stellar example for parents who are raising competitive athletes. “[They are] an amazing family,” he said, “and without families like theirs that contribute not only in the pool but through officiating, community service, and offering their home for team social activities, teams like ours would not be near the success [that we are].”
The trio of teens has big dreams for the future: Nic wants to swim in college, whereas Karli and Will ultimately have their sights set on competing in the Olympics. Under the guidance of Greg and Kathy, these young swimmers have enough maturity and perspective to chase down their dreams one goal at a time. Wherever their paths may lead, the three will no doubt be ones to watch—maybe even in Rio in 2016.