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Merrie Sue Holtan, Published November 01 2012

The road to Division I: Karen Roesler, Desiree Larson share the challenges of raising elite athletes

FARGO - The relationship between Desiree Larson and Karen Roesler started as their little Acro Team girls, Kelsey and Emily, learned gymnastics.

The moms couldn’t have guessed then how their children’s sports would continue to bring their lives together.

The kids grew into elite athletes, and the two women became friends and confidants, helping each other navigate high school and college athletics and the complexities of the recruitment process.

Karen, a physical education teacher at Fargo South, watched Emily and her siblings, twins Kyle and Laura, play a variety of sports for Fargo South. In north Fargo, Desiree, an assistant North Dakota State University track coach, followed the activities of Kelsey and her sister, Kira.

“Neither of us believed in specializing early in any one sport, so we introduced our kids to just about everything,” says Desiree. “We had high-energy kids, and they needed to keep busy and have structure. School, however, always came first.”

Emily became a runner for the NDSU track team, and Kelsey played on the volleyball team at Northwest Missouri State. Both will conclude their college careers this spring. Kyle plays soccer at University of Mary in Bismarck, and Laura runs for the Division I University of Oregon track team. Kira, a senior at Fargo North High School, will head to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to play middle blocker for the Division I Husker volleyball team.

family tradition

Desiree, who grew up in Detroit, and Karen, from New Salem, N.D., both came from athletic families.

Desiree, whose mother competed in high jump in the 1952 Olympics, played three sports in high school and ran track at Michigan State. Her husband, Don, is head track and field coach at NDSU. He was a three-sport high school athlete and played football and ran track at South Dakota State University.

Karen, who grew up with eight athletic siblings, ran track and played volleyball and basketball at Dickinson (N.D.) State. Her husband, Lynn, a product manager at Bobcat, wrestled for Bismarck Community College and eventually NDSU. He competed at the Pan American Games, which made it extra special when their daughter Laura qualified and ran in the games.

“Since Don and I coach for NDSU track, and Karen and Lynn were also coaches, our kids have always been around athletes,” Desiree says. “They saw the hard work, the ups and downs and mental toughness it takes for athletes to be successful at the next level.”

Mom/coach philosophy

Karen remembers Laura trying everything from tae kwan do to wrestling, where she learned the “no cry rule.”

“Her dad was the wrestling coach,” Karen says. “She had a couple rough matches and a couple good cries. Then her dad told her if she cried three times, no more wrestling. Lesson learned.”

Both women note how their girls loved to compete and play against boys. Even just playing outside, they wanted to run faster and jump higher.

“It was when Laura first played soccer with boys that I noticed how competitive she really was,” Karen says. “Lynn and I have always tried to keep the lives of our children normal. Balance and providing the same attention and accolades to all three children remains a priority for us.”

The women also agree they could never coach their own children, especially at the elite level. “We did help a little bit when they were little,” Karen says.

“I can coach a little bit with high jump, because that’s what I coach at NDSU, but otherwise they don’t listen to me,” Desiree says.

Karen and Desiree never needed to discipline their athletes to practice, and sometimes they had to tell them to back off a bit from their sport. The young women have sacrificed social lives and friendships for the sake of their sports, the moms say.

“If Kira doesn’t think her volleyball practice was hard enough, she’ll come home and run,” Desiree says.

“And when you get to the Division I level, they own you,” Karen says. “It’s eat, study, practice and sleep.”

Clueless about recruitment

The Larsons thought they had a grasp on what recruiting would be like from their work at NDSU.

“However, we were floored by the whole process, especially how young they recruit for volleyball,” Desiree says. “We really didn’t have a clue, and I was shocked when Nebraska made an offer to Kira as a sophomore.”

Kira, a 6-foot-3, three-sport athlete with 550 high school kills last season, had been playing middle blocker for a Twin Cities traveling volleyball team. At one national qualifying tournament she had 31 coaches circling the court to watch her play. Nebraska became a No. 1 choice partly because of proximity to family.

“My family has always been my support system,” Kira says. “I look forward to a higher level in volleyball and also figuring out what I want to do careerwise.”

Karen took control over Laura’s recruiting by limiting the nights coaches could call. Coaches from all over the country contacted the track star, who traveled to major national meets and was a 2008 Olympic Trials semifinalist as a high school sophomore.

Oregon emerged as the best fit for Laura, and once at school, the coaches began to teach her “racing strategy.” Her freshman year, she became a four-time All-American. Karen said she never had a “homesick” call from Laura.

“I believe that young athletes should enjoy what they do; then they will be successful,” says Laura. “If you want athletics to take you places, keep working hard and improving. Remember that you can’t control anyone but yourself.”

Kira and Laura will devote most of the year to academics and college sports, coming home briefly for Christmas and a few weeks in the summer. When they miss class, which can be often, the teams provide tutors and test proctors on the road.

Desiree keeps working part time so she can travel to Kira’s games. Lynn and Karen split their time between Kyle’s soccer games and Laura’s meets.

“When you’re from North Dakota, you have to come to the realization that you can play against these people who are all stars at the national level,” Karen says. “You have to prove yourself all over again.”

Merrie Sue Holtan is a regular contributor to SheSays. She lives near Perham, Minn.