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It’s a Family Affair for the All-American Girl
Two years ago, Emily Parsons forgot to leave her parents’ names at the pass gate for a women’s gymnastics meet at Iowa State.
Jim and Julie Parsons showed up, like they do for almost every Nebraska meet, home or away, expecting to get in. When the lady at the pass gate asked the parents who their daughter was, they said, almost in unison, “Emily Parsons.”
“Emily Parsons?” she asked, giving them a chance to stop what looked like intentional fraud.
“Yes,” they said. “She always has us on the list.”
Neither parent realized at the time that their daughter was already a household name in the Big 12 Conference. Coaches, athletes, fans – even the ticket takers – knew who Emily Parsons was. And Jim and Julie certainly didn’t look like her parents.
Emily is the All-American girl – in fact, a nine-time All-American in one of the toughest individual sports in intercollegiate athletics. She has a million-dollar smile and a team-first attitude. Nebraska Head Coach Dan Kendig, a two-time National Coach of the Year (1999 and 2003), called Parsons one of the fiercest competitors he’s ever coached, and his associate head coach, Danna Durante, nodded in agreement.
But even they can understand a ticket taker’s confusion in Ames, Iowa. Emily Parsons is African-American, and both her parents are white. She has an older brother, Josh, who’s also African-American. Another older brother, Matt, and an older sister, Elizabeth Higgs, are both of Korean descent. They also have two cousins who are of Filipino and Native American descent.
All four of Jim and Julie Parsons’ children were adopted. Emily joined the family when she was six weeks old. She first competed at age 7 and by age 10, she was a Level 10 gymnast and ready to move from Stillwater, Okla., to St. Charles, Mo., a St. Louis suburb. Matt, 16, moved, too. Josh was still in college at the time, and Elizabeth stayed in Oklahoma to plan her wedding.
“Growing up, I never thought about how ethnically diverse we are as a family,” Emily said. “I don’t remember, even once, asking questions about why we look different. It just seemed so natural to me.”
It seemed natural to her mom, too. “My mom always said (with a warm smile): ‘God gave me three angels, and then there was you,’” said Emily, who began her gymnastics career before learning her ABCs. Her parents have video of a one-year-old Emily reaching up to the wooden handles on a dresser drawer and lifting herself up, “like I was on bars,” she said. “It’s funny, really funny. My mom always thought I was going to hurt myself because I’d walk on the back of couches and jump off or flip over.”
|The Parsons family includes, from left: Elizabeth (Higgs), Matt, Julie, Emily, Jim, Josh and Amanda Terry (engaged to Josh).|
Her parents’ support is unwavering. During her sophomore year of high school, Emily injured the Achilles on her right foot. During her senior year, she injured the Achilles on her left foot. She still went to nationals that year in Orlando, wearing a boot and cheering on her teammates.
Recruiters saw Emily’s greatness when she won 2003 Junior Olympic national titles on Floor Exercise and in the All-Around. Florida and LSU offered to pay for a campus visit. So did Ohio State and Michigan State. BYU e-mailed a full-ride offer. She took four visits – to Arizona, Auburn, Oklahoma and, of course, Nebraska.
“My parents told me to decide where I wanted to go to school because they weren’t going to tell me what to do,” Emily said. “Nebraska was my first visit, and I knew right away that this was the place for me because of the team, the coaches, the atmosphere and the fans. I can’t explain it, but everyone just treats everyone else with such kindness and respect. I love Nebraska. Even if I move away from here and end up coaching somewhere else, Nebraska will always be where my heart is.”
Friday, in a 7 p.m. dual that is expected to draw between 3,000 and 4,000 fans at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, Parsons will be center stage against the Missouri Tigers.
There will be pressure, but Parsons knows how to handle it. Last weekend, she wowed nearly 13,000 fans in Salt Lake City, Utah, winning the vault with a 9.95, tying the defending NCAA beam champion with a 9.90 and also tying for the all-around title with 39.325. Second-ranked Utah beat the 11th-ranked Huskers, but Parsons stole the show.
“She’s a senior now. She’s matured. She’s figured it out. She’s enjoying the ride,” Kendig said of Parsons. “It was so exciting to see her go to Utah in front of all their fans and knock down three more wins. She has 93 wins now for her career. She’s moving in on that 100-win milestone . . . incredible . . . truly incredible.”
After the meet against Missouri, Parsons has only three more home matches in Lincoln – Feb. 7 against Michigan, Feb. 23 against Denver and March 14 against Iowa State. Get your calendars out now and circle the remaining dates. If you don’t have dinner plans tonight, grab a bite at the Bob Devaney Sports Center and watch the Huskers make a move for a top 10 ranking.
“You don’t want to miss seeing Emily. She’s an amazing athlete,” Kendig says. “There’s not a coach among the top 30 teams in the country who doesn’t know who Emily Parsons is. As her career winds down here, I just hope every Nebraska fan will take the time to watch her. She’s one of our greatest individual athletes, and she’s one of the strongest team leaders we’ve ever had.”