Gillian Smith is pretty busy – for a 6-year-old.
In a normal week, she has golf lessons on Tuesday afternoon, soccer practice on Wednesday, Irish dancing lessons on Friday, soccer games on Saturday, and horseback riding on Sunday. Not to mention a commitment to attending University of Richmond sporting events with her little brother, Owen, and parents, Matt and Heather Smith, both UR alums.
“Being involved in all these sports has given both kids a chance to learn to work with other teammates and instill confidence,” says their mom. “They are learning the sport, but more importantly, they are learning about setting goals, success and failure, and teamwork.”
Of a recent Saturday, Heather said, “We had five straight hours together encouraging each others’ teams and spending quality time together.”
Sports and recreation play an important role in the lives of many families. Whether it’s organized leagues or regular exercise, parents often look to introduce their children to some form of recreational activity early on. In addition to the list of important lessons Smith mentioned, parents see this as quality time for the family.
And these days, the family has plenty of options, which has led to a rise in construction of facilities to meet increasing demand. American Family Fitness, founded locally in 1988, is about to open its seventh Richmond area location. Indoor, multi sport complexes like SCOR, RISE and U-Turn offer year-round activities, specialized training, and the latest equipment and playing surfaces. It appears interest continues to grow, as does the need for suitable venues for games and practice.
“For us, it’s always been about providing a good family environment for kids and families to develop,” says Rob Ukrop, president of the Richmond Kickers Youth Soccer Club (RKYSC). Last fall, RKYSC opened Ukrop Park, a state of the art soccer complex. The 45.5-acre site, with plans for an aquatics center down the road, has six, lighted fields with synthetic turf to be used by the over a thousand kids on 69 teams in the league.
“We needed a home,” says Ukrop. Located at the intersection of Chippenham Parkway and Route 10, Ukrop Park is a convenient destination for families who in the past had driven their kids to different parks and fields around Greater Richmond for games and practice.
“Our biggest challenge was we didn’t want to impact our families. We have kids coming from Ashland, Chesterfield, Goochland, the West End and the city. We feel we are almost perfectly centrally located for all of our programming.”
Tuckahoe Little League also opened a new facility last fall. The Tuckahoe Training Center is a 38,000-square foot indoor complex that features, batting cages, pitching mounds and a regulation size synthetic turf infield that can be configured for any level of baseball or softball.
“There’s no such thing as a rainout,” Michael Brown proudly states. He is Vice president of baseball and softball operations for Tuckahoe Sports, Inc., and a product of the Tuckahoe Little League system. Teams from around the area flocked here during the winter and early spring to train and practice before the weather warmed up. It’s a hard-core player’s paradise, but the complex isn’t just for pre-teens and high schoolers prepping for the next level.
“We offer programs for 3-year-olds, we offer birthday parties, we have parents day out, and we have snow day clinics,” says Robinson.
Richmond’s brutal winter weather this season didn’t faze TSI. As soon as school was cancelled, an email blast was sent out to their membership alerting them to an impromptu baseball/softball clinic for boys and girls. Even on that infamous day some of the school districts were late to make the call on cancelling class, TSI was ready.
“We sent out word around 7:30 in the morning and two hours later, we had 30 kids show up,” says Brown.
Brown spent two and half years working for the YMCA and that experience has inspired him to offer programming for kids and parents. Tuckahoe Tikes, for example, introduces kids to baseball starting at age 3.
“We want to get parents out here to be involved with their kids, to play catch, run bases with them — just to do some fun activities that give a parent a chance to bond with their kid.”
At The First Tee Chesterfield, it’s not uncommon to see families playing together. Parents and kids walk the 18- hole, 4,900-yard course. It’s a beginner friendly, yet challenging layout for all skill sets.
Executive Director Brent Schneider says, “A lot of people who support us have had some sort of experience Growing up either with an older sibling or parent who fell in love with the game and all the good that comes out of the game.”
Created in 1997, The First Tee is an international initiative to bring golf to youngsters who would not normally be exposed to the game and its positive values. Schneider directs the area’s two First Tee facilities: the City of Richmond and Chesterfield County. “We have entry points through our programs where (kids) learn about golf while parents hit balls on the range.”
The First Tee, TSI and RKYSC are non-profit organizations, relying on membership dues, fundraising, and donations to sustain them. Ukrop is aware youth sports and family recreation is big business, too.
While the organizations are different, the non-profit groups and for-profit outfits seem to agree on one thing: providing opportunities for families to live a more active life is important. In early spring, ground was broken for SportsQuest, a 250-acre sports and family entertainment complex in Chesterfield County, near Route 288 and Powhite Parkway.
It would include fields for a variety of sports offered and organized by SportsQuest: soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, flag football, rugby, Ultimate, and Frisbee golf. SportsQuest has a family festival slated for October.
As Richmond continues to evolve, the sports and recreation landscape does too, presenting a slew of options for fitness for all ages and interests.
Ukrop added, “I think Richmond is a terrific place to find a sport or activity your child can enjoy, or the whole family can enjoy.” Just ask Gillian Smith and her parents about that.