“It kind of fell down the family tree I guess,” said former Westside three-sport star Jason Ross of his oldest daughter’s athletic gifts.
The youngest member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team that is expected to bring home the gold medal from the London Olympics spent about a year of her infancy in Augusta while her father was hop-scotching through the minor leagues. Jason Ross was playing for the Macon Braves while his wife, Kiana, and infant Kyla lived at his parents’ home in Martinez in 1997-98.
It was in Greenville, S.C., at age 3 when gymnastics was discovered as a good outlet for her boundless energy and in Richmond, Va., when she started getting competitive at age 5. Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California, has been home base for the last 10 years as she’s developed into a world-class all-around gymnast. She was a two-time junior national champion.
“She kept going along and we kept saying, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’” said Washington Ross, her grandfather and a retired Army master sergeant. “We never envisioned her doing all this. She kept excelling and winning and in the back of all our minds we realized she could go all the way. She’s that good. Now she’s done it. This was her goal.”
The Westside athletics family no doubt remembers the Rosses. Oldest brother Joe went on to become the star fullback on two Georgia Southern national championship teams in 1989-90, establishing every school rushing record before Adrian Peterson came along and wiped them off the books.
Five years later, Jason came through as a triple threat for the Patriots. Despite a scholarship offer from Georgia Southern as an all-state defensive back, he got as far away as possible from his older brother’s shadow at the University of Hawaii. He later switched his scholarship to baseball and was drafted by the Braves in the 13th round of the 1996 draft.
Ross played at every level of the Braves farm system over six seasons, getting as far as the preseason roster in Atlanta before deciding it was time to move into the real world to support his growing family.
But the competitive drive was always inside the Rosses.
“As a kid growing up I was always Joe’s little brother,” Jason said. “Joe this, Joe that. That was great but I wanted to do my own thing. Definitely didn’t want to follow the footsteps. It’s funny, we eventually kind of had the roles reversed. I went off and did my thing and then when (Joe) started to come watch me play baseball they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re Jason’s brother.’ He used to get a little upset about that.”
Now Jason is just Kyla’s dad and Joe is the proud uncle of the 15-year-old gymnast who has eclipsed all of their athletic achievements by drawing the biggest spotlight of the Olympics. Her dad and uncle certainly never got introduced by flight attendants to the entire plane and given priority boarding privileges like she received on Monday after becoming one of America’s marquee Olympic athletes the night before at the U.S. Gymnastics Trials.
Both Jason and Joe were in the arena in San Jose, Calif., on Sunday when Kyla walked out in a shower of confetti as the youngest member of the U.S. team.
“As a parent it was definitely nerve-wracking,” Jason said of the wait as U.S. officials decided on the chosen five members of the American team. “Had to wait sitting on pins and needles. It was very, very tough.”
It was no less difficult back in Martinez for the grandparents. Normally Washington and Shigeko Ross travel with the family whenever Kyla competes in major events, but Shigeko’s health precluded them from being there this time.
“I didn’t know whether I wanted to sit and watch or cut it off,” Washington said of his granddaughter’s televised performances. “I watched. It’s the same thing her dad does. He always says, ‘I can’t watch’ and goes off by himself.”
Being the parent of an athlete is different than doing it yourself. Kyla has the same cool level-headed demeanor that both Jason and Joe had when they were on the field. While the rest of her U.S. teammates were dripping in tears, mascara and nervous energy after the emotional announcement on Sunday night, Kyla was simply smiling.
“It comes from my side of the family to not get too high or too low,” said her father.
“You have to see her,” said her grandfather. “This girl for that young age is so determined and dedicated. She’s emotionless, so quiet. That’s the most I’ve ever seen her get excited (on Sunday). She’s a tremendous person. She has so much potential for just being 15 years old. She hasn’t even peaked yet. Her posture is so good, so perfect.”
Jason marvels at the poise his daughter possesses on such a massive stage even before she’s old enough to drive.
“At 15 the things she’s done and accomplished – traveling the world competing – I could not imagine anything like that,” he said. “I could barely even take care of myself.”
While this has been a long-running ambition to make the U.S. Olympic team, Ross got there so quickly her father isn’t sure she realizes how big a deal it is. Gymnastics is the glamour event of the Olympic Games and this U.S. team is considered potentially even better than the one that won gold in 1996 in Atlanta – a few months before Kyla was born.
“Now she’s starting to get a taste of it,” Jason said. “She’s still so young and naive a little bit. She’s smart but I still sometimes wonder if she grasps everything that’s taking place. It was one of those lifelong dreams that finally came true for her, so we’re pretty proud of her.”
The proud Westside grad doesn’t take any credit for Kyla’s accomplishments other than the genes. And though he came just short of his own career aspirations as an athlete, he’s relishing the chance to see his daughter fulfilled.
“It’s a little different – all these things are hers,” he said. “It’s great for me as an ex-athlete who may not have reached my ultimate goal. It’s satisfying that she has. I can only imagine how that feels. This is her stuff. As a parent I just watch and enjoy. I’m just so proud for her that she owns her sport.”