Gustavus Athletics: A Carlson Family Tradition

Posted on May 9th, 2016 by

Picture your stereotypical college-bound high school senior. Ready for a new chapter. Excited for a new set of surroundings. And maybe most significantly, eager to put a bit of distance between themselves and their parents.

Now, meet Cal and Grace Carlson. While each have strived to carve their own niche following their graduation from Saint Peter High School, the sisters are doing so close to home as student-athletes at Gustavus Adolphus College. Cal, a junior, is a member of the women’s tennis team, while Grace, a first-year, competes on the women’s swimming and diving squad. The catch? Their father, Jon Carlson, is head coach of both of those teams, and their mother, Heidi, is an assistant coach on the women’s tennis team.

Cal and Heidi share a laugh in a recent Gustie tennis match.

Cal values how her parents “manage to treat me like their daughter, while still pushing me to reach my full potential.”

“I always knew I wanted to come to Gustavus,” said Cal. “I wanted to play tennis in college, especially after growing up around Gustavus Tennis and the values that surround it.”

I didn’t look anywhere else,” added Grace. “I knew this is where I wanted to be and it was where I saw myself. I don’t regret not looking at other places, especially now that I’ve loved my first year here so much.”

Cal and Grace credit the “team-first” environment that envelops both squads as one of the primary reasons it was an easy choice to compete under their parents. Each saw how their mom and dad had become role models to so many because of the close-knit team culture that each group has adopted. That culture has made Cal and Grace want to stick around and allows them to appreciate that their parents serve as more than just coaches at Gustavus.

“One particular story that a swimmer told at a team banquet has stuck with me for multiple years,” said Cal. “The individual shared a heartfelt speech about his time at Gustavus and how, because he had no father growing up, he had looked to my dad as the father figure in his life.”

While each has plenty of warm memories from their youth, both acknowledge that having parents as collegiate coaches has been difficult at times. Daily practices, multiple matches or meets on weekends, and recruiting trips around the Midwest are just a few of the tasks that kept Jon away from home and from seeing his children, including Cal and Grace’s younger sister Josie, as much as they might have liked.

Cal and Grace both appreciate how becoming athletes under their parents have brought their family closer together.

Cal and Grace both appreciate how becoming athletes under their parents have brought their family closer together.

“Growing up, it didn’t make sense why he wasn’t around very much,” said Grace. “But now as his athlete, I’m able to understand how hard he works and how much he does for others. I didn’t always understand it as a kid, but I’ve been able to appreciate how many people he impacts and makes better now that I am a part of one of his teams.”

For all the positives that Cal and Grace have taken away from having their parents as coaches, they acknowledge that the relationship with their parents can be challenging at times as well, especially with their dad. Known as a “bulldog” and for his competitive spirit, Jon rarely lets anything, including his own daughters, cloud his vision for putting the most competitive team possible on the court or in the pool. Many times, this includes tough love, but Cal and Grace are able to understand it better than almost anyone.

“Coming in, I was nervous about my teammates judging where I was placed in the lineup…I didn’t want to get special treatment and I wanted to earn my spot like everyone else,” said Cal. “I quickly realized I didn’t need to worry about that. He puts forth the best possible lineup to win and I’m 100 percent behind every decision he, my mom, and the rest of the coaches make because I know they’re always doing what’s best for the team.”

“Something I had a tough time with this season was hearing my peers on the team talk about my dad when they were having an off-day or weren’t happy,” added Grace. “Don’t get me wrong, there were multiple instances where he made me angry too, but I think it was easier for me to see the big picture because I’ve lived with him my whole life.”

Cal credits open communication with her parents as being key to maintaining close relationships with them.

Cal credits open communication with her parents as being key to maintaining close relationships with them.

While it is sometimes alleged around the world of athletics that parents coaching children should be avoided, Cal and Grace each feel as though it isn’t nearly as difficult as many would think. They each credit open communication as the key to maintaining close relationships with both parents and say flipping the switch between viewing their mom and dad as coach and family has been a learned skill.

“Somehow, they manage to treat me like their daughter while still pushing me to reach my full potential,” said Cal. “Honestly, I don’t know how they do it as well as they do.”

It’s this mutual respect between the Carlson parents and children that has allowed Jon and Heidi to stay active in their children’s lives, while still coaching successful teams. Since Jon took over the reins of the women’s tennis program in 1990, he and Heidi have helped Gustavus win the MIAC title 22 times, and their teams have earned NCAA Tournament bids in all but four seasons, including winning the NCAA National Championship in 1990. Jon has had similar success with the swimming and diving teams, as the men qualified for the NCAA National Meet 16 consecutive years between 1996 and 2011, and recorded team finishes in each of those years. The women’s team has won 10 of the past 15 MIAC Championships, and has recorded team finishes at the NCAA National Meet 13 times during Jon’s tenure. Now, Cal and Grace have embraced being a part of the great traditions that their parents have helped lead since the sisters were each born.

Grace says having her dad on the pool dec is "a different bond than we’ve had before."

Grace says having her dad on the pool deck is “a different bond than we’ve had before.”

“I’m obviously biased, but even if they weren’t my parents, I still think they’re two of the best coaches in the MIAC,” said Cal. “Being able to grow up knowing their motives and intentions helps me buy into what they tell the team because I’ve heard it preached at home for several years.”

“I love having my dad at my practices and that he can see me as an athlete as well as his daughter,” added Grace. “It’s a different bond than we’ve had before and I love the feedback I get from him. On the pool deck, he’ll try and embarrass me, which is sort of the dad coming out in him, but I enjoy having him on deck and having the chance to be a part of what he does so well.”

It’s no wonder that both Cal and Grace are considering a career in coaching when their time at Gustavus eventually comes to a close. The pair has come to love what they’ve learned from their parents and the great impact such a career can have on so many individuals.

“Coaching is amazing to me because teaching people how to be better individuals through sport is such a special concept and one I truly believe in,” said Cal. “You see that through more sports than just ours…I think almost every coach at Gustavus does an awesome job of teaching their athletes to not only be better in their sport, but to be better people as well.”


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