Feb. 29, 2016
By Brad Muller | More Features
Growing up with a father who is a famous sports celebrity has potential to be tough for a young student-athlete. However, South Carolina equestrian’s Amelia Vernon has carved out her own identity without parental pressure, and her former National Hockey League all-star father, Mike Vernon, is happy to be out of the spotlight as he cheers for his daughter.
“He definitely is my biggest supporter and my biggest fan,” Vernon said of her father. “A lot of people think that because he was in professional sports, that he puts a lot of pressure on his kids. I have three younger brothers, and they play hockey. I think it was the opposite of that because he had so much pressure growing up, so he didn’t want it to be like that for us. We’re all very competitive in our own right, but I don’t think I get that from him. It’s just how I am.”
Vernon, a junior from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, started riding at the age of seven and began competing shortly after that.
“I always liked horses growing up,” Vernon said. “I don’t have any family that was involved in show jumping at all. It started out with summer camps, and when I was in grade three, I had two friends that were taking lessons.
“The riding community is pretty big in Calgary. One of the top venues in the world is Spruce Meadows in Calgary, which is really convenient. Hundreds of the top riders in the world always come there to compete over five weeks in the summer and one week in the fall. That was nice growing up to have that sense of competition at Spruce Meadows. That was my first big horse show.”
Mike Vernon was a five-time NHL all-star goalie who won two Stanley Cups, one with the Calgary Flames in 1989 and the other with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997. The Flames retired his #30 jersey following his career.
“Calgary is such a big hockey town with the Flames, and he obviously had a lot of success,” Vernon said. “He’s one of the home grown heroes because he was born and raised there. That’s pretty rare to start your career in the place you grew up. Growing up, he had a lot of pressure on him. That made it hard for him.”
He took the ribbon and wore it on his shirt for the entire day. He was the most proud father ever.
Amelia earned her own hardware as part of South Carolina’s national championship team a year ago. While her father felt that pressure to succeed in sports, he never put that pressure on his children to do the same.
“My dad always jokingly says you should always be first, second or third, but he’s not really super-competitive,” Vernon laughed. “My very first horse show was in California when I was nine years old. There were maybe ten or eleven kids in the class, and I won a little brown eighth place ribbon. My dad was so proud of me. He took the ribbon and wore it on his shirt for the entire day. He was the most proud father ever. I have a picture of him with it, and he is just grinning ear to ear. When it comes down to it, he’s just a regular dad. When I’m in the ring, it’s not about him, it’s about me. He is so supportive. He is definitely my biggest fan.”
Mike may have raised a couple of Stanley Cup trophies, but Amelia sees the pure joy when her father is on hand as her spectator.
“He loves to see me succeed, and he knows I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve done,” Vernon said. “So it’s nice for him to see things pay off that way.”
Mike had retired from the NHL around the same time Amelia began riding.
“I don’t remember much about when he played because I was so young,” Vernon recalled. “I do remember he would be gone for three or four days at a time when he was playing. I remember my mom being pregnant most of my childhood with my three younger brothers. So we spent a lot of time together.”
Although she only plays in some pick-up hockey games back home, Amelia is still a hockey fan who would like to take some of her southern friends to a professional game. She enjoys wearing a Flames or Red Wings jersey from time to time, which might stand out on campus. Similarly, even in retirement, Amelia’s father is still easily recognizable in their hometown, but that’s not the case when he is on campus to watch her compete.
“If we’re going out downtown for a family dinner, he’ll probably get stopped on the street once or twice,” Vernon said. “At horse shows back home, he would get stopped all the time. It’s not really weird though because that’s just always how it has been at home. Down here, nobody knows him so it’s completely different and refreshing. I think it’s refreshing for him too.”
It takes a special skill set to play hockey at the highest level, especially when you have to expertly use those skills while skating. Equestrian also has a uniqueness which separates the sport from most others. In collegiate competitions, the host team provides the horses for both teams, so a visiting team doesn’t have much time to get acquainted to the horse they will ride in the competition. That gives new meaning to a home field advantage.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Vernon said. “Each horse is so different, and every time you ride a horse it can be different even if you’ve ridden the same one a hundred times. There is a lot of fast thinking on your feet, and you have to be able to change your plans on the spot.
“You get four minutes to learn your horse and four jumps, while the person you’re riding against will have had weeks to prepare on the same horse. It is a challenge. So it is rewarding when you can beat someone on their own horse. When I won my first point, it was in South Dakota on one of their horses. That was one of the most rewarding things for me. It really comes down to SEC and nationals and that format is different. You’re both on strange horses. So that’s where you can shine.”
With Mike having long ago hung up his skates and jersey, Amelia hopes she will someday be able to don some special attire of her own.
“I’ve always wanted to compete on a Nation’s Cup team,” Vernon said. “For a Nation’s Cup team, you get to wear a red jacket for Canada, so I’ve always wanted that red coat. That’s the one thing I want to do.”
Mike has been able to come down from time to time to watch Amelia compete at One Wood Farm in Blythewood, the home of Gamecock Equestrian, and she is optimistic he will come down for an event later this spring. At least at this event, he won’t have to disguise himself, and the spotlight can shine on Amelia. Then he can just be one of the dads and play the part of an admiring fan.
“He’s kind of my good luck charm,” Vernon said. “When he comes, I usually do pretty well. He’s really great with the sports psychology side of things. He loves wearing all of the Gamecock gear. He wears it all the time.”
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