Finding a kindred sports spirit

Courtesy of Peggy McDonnell Walsh

Peggy McDonnell Walsh poses with her grandson, Kevin Pearce, at one of Pearce's snowboarding competitions.

A few weeks ago I spent a heavenly weekend in New Jersey. (While that might sound oxymoronic to some, I assure you there are areas in Jersey that prove the "Garden State" moniker true, i.e. there was nary a fist-pump nor Guido in sight.)

My aunt and uncle's farm in Pottersville is the perfect place to escape alarm clocks and deadlines and check back in with life as it used to be. I don't think I saw a television set all weekend and the laptop tucked away in my bag, untouched, was the only computer in sight.

By day we marveled over the impossibly lush vegetable and flower gardens, lounged by the pond and took long walks to visit the horses next door. By night we indulged in divine home-cooked meals, rich Spanish wines and even a late night cigar and scotch tasting.

It was just the sort of weekend to make me forget about work altogether. That is, until I met Peggy McDonnell Walsh. Within a few minutes of talking to her I wanted to be both her granddaughter and her best friend.

She was seated across from me Friday night, one of the guests at a lovely little dinner party thrown by my aunt and uncle for visiting family and nearby friends. Topics of conversation were predictably and pleasantly genteel: Childhood ski vacations ("fantastic!"), post-MBA clinical psychology jobs ("challenging") and the quality of the homemade seafood paella ("outstanding!").

Midway through the paella Walsh, an 86 year-old mother of nine with 27 grandkids and two great-granddaughters, asked if anyone else had caught the end of the USA vs. Spain gold medal basketball game.

"What a dramatic finish," she exclaimed. "LeBron and Kobe and Durant and all the guys! And what a joy to see them all so emotional about winning."

I couldn't believe it. I'd found a most unlikely kindred spirit.

We talked for a few more minutes about basketball, tennis and preseason football, then about Walsh's grandson Kevin Pearce, a four-time X-Games medalist in snowboarding. I had read about Pearce years earlier, when was critically injured during a fall in training.

I wanted to hear more about Pearce and about Walsh's lifelong love affair with sports, but conversation soon turned back to matters more interesting to our sports-eschewing tablemates. Once I was back home in Chicago, I decided to give Walsh a call to hear a few more stories about her fascinating life.

Her story

Born and raised in Purchase, N.Y., Walsh had three brothers, two older and one younger. She never was good behind a desk (still isn't, she says) and always wanted to be outside playing sports with the boys. She played tennis, golf, fished and skied as often as she could and always had a bit of a rebellious streak.

"The one sport I didn't like much," Walsh confided, "was riding. I played hooky from riding school. I'd get the woman who drove me to the riding lessons to go to the movies with me, instead. I don't think my parents ever found out."

"Wouldn't you just kill a kid doing that when you were spending all that money to send them to lessons?" she asked with a laugh.

After grade school she attended Westover boarding school in Connecticut, again focusing her efforts on the field and the court more than the classroom.

"My parents came up for graduation and the morning ceremony was all intellectual stuff, academics," she told me. "At lunch my dad said 'You've been here for four years and I haven't heard your name mentioned once!' I said 'Wait 'til this afternoon when the athletic [honors] start.' And I was up and down, up and down [getting awards]."

As we talked about her childhood, memories came to Walsh like forgotten items in a long-dark attic, suddenly illuminated by the beam of a flashlight. She fondly remembered traveling with her Dad by train to watch pro baseball games.

"Back in 1934, I think it was, my family knew Walter Briggs, who owned the Detroit Tigers and Tiger Stadium," she explained. "At one time we were going back and forth from Detroit to St. Louis with the team to the World Series games. I remember Mickey Cochrane was the catcher, he was the guy that got beaned in the head by a pitch."

"Later on the family got into the Cardinals," she mused. "There was Bob Gibson and Lou Brock -- named the Roadrunner, 'cause he stole a lot of bases."

Walsh went on to share her love of sports with her first husband, T. Murray McDonnell. The two were regulars at Rangers games and his friendship with the Mara family resulted in many a New York Giants game spent in the owner's box.

They were married for 41 years and had nine children, five daughters and four sons. All the kids grew up playing tennis, golf, skiing and learning to fish and shoot. Walsh says if asked, they would absolutely attribute their interest in sports to their mom.

"Oh, 100 percent. And probably I pushed it all too much 'cause I loved it so much."

Growing up, Walsh's sons were friends with Jake Burton Carpenter, who went on to create the Burton Snowboard company. Talking about Carpenter shined the flashlight on another one of Walsh's long-forgotten memories.

"Actually, funnily enough," she recalled, "my sons were in the first nationals of snowboarding, which I believe were in Michigan. It was so elementary; I don't even think they had bindings."

Her kids are grown now, and her second husband, Phillip, passed away in 2011, so Walsh watches a lot of sports alone at home these days.

"The other night I was watching Andrew Luck play," she said. "I'm always interested in the kids who graduate to the big leagues. I also watched Tebow to see what he was gonna do. I love all the intrigue. Sanchez and Tebow and what is Woody Johnson gonna do with that terrible team."

She has followed Tiger Woods' pre- and post-scandal career very closely and still watches a lot of tennis. She likes Roger Federer's "ballet artist" style, but says Rafael Nadal is her new favorite. "Anybody like Federer that lasts too long," she said, "I root for the underdog instead."

Her grandson

Walsh knows underdogs well. For a lot of Kevin Pearce's snowboarding career, he was the underdog, often coming up just short to Shaun White. But heading into 2010 Walsh's grandson was a favorite to make the Vancouver Olympic team after winning three medals at the 2008 Winter X Games, capturing numerous titles in European events and even beating White on a few occasions.

"I used to go to the X Games with Kevin's mother" Walsh told me, "And I could never watch when he was really going for it. I could watch on the big TV screen but I couldn't watch him in person."

The family's worst fears were realized on New Year's Eve, 2009, when Pearce hit his head on the end of the pipe during training for the Olympic trials. He suffered a traumatic brain injury which ended his professional snowboarding career.

"I think he beat death by an eyelash," Walsh said. "Probably because he was in Park City, close to the hospital there in Salt Lake, which is a fantastic hospital.

"He had incredible support from all of his family. The sponsors were so good to him. I would have thought a sponsor would drop anybody that had a traumatic brain injury -- 'Forget that, they're not going to do anything for us.' They stuck with him, though. They rented houses for him and the family. They were amazing. And they still are."

Pearce now lives in San Diego, working on the brand he started with fellow snowboarders and surfers, Frends ('cause there's no "I" in team) and giving speeches about traumatic brain injuries. Walsh says the family feels incredibly blessed by Pearce's recovery.

"Kevy is doing great now," Walsh said, "but there are some things that are different. One funny thing is he likes dogs and he never liked dogs before! He's also much more outgoing physically, showing his emotion [more than] he was before. Before he was a little bit reserved, but now he's just hugging everybody."

Walsh told me she would be on the receiving end of one of those hugs in just a few days, as she was headed out to meet Kevin and the rest of the Pearce family in Cape Cod.

When I hung up the phone I wished I could have followed her out to the Cape for a few more stories. We didn't even get the chance to talk about her great friendship with Jackie and Aristotle Onassis, or her many days babysitting for Caroline and John Kennedy. I never asked her about my favorite NBA player, Michael Jordan, or got her thoughts on Serena Williams' unbelievable year.

Guess I'll just have to head back East again. Aunt Janet, Uncle Wayne, grab a bottle of Rioja and throw a pan of paella on the stove.

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