McConnell's comeback a family affair

REBORN OLYMPIAN

July 05, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Staff Writer

PORTLAND, ORE. — Portland, Ore.--It was the first day, the first hard day, the first major test for Suzie McConnell four months after giving birth.

She was running wind sprints inside a Pittsburgh gym. She was dreaming of her second Olympics. Then, all of a sudden -- there's just no easy way to say it -- she threw up.

"She went, got some paper towels, cleaned it up and said, 'What's next?' " her brother, Tim, recalled. "From that point on, I said, 'She's got a chance.' "

Tim is McConnell's personal trainer, the man she calls "Timbo" -- as in Rambo. Her Olympic saga, though, is more like "Rocky," with a touch of "The Waltons" thrown in.

A grueling effort. A family effort. A mammoth effort that helped land McConnell in Barcelona, Spain, the only amateur -- and the only mother -- on the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team.

McConnell, soon to be 26, couldn't have done it without her husband, Pete Serio, who took care of their son, Peter, 21 months old.

She couldn't have done it without her parents and her in-laws helping out with baby-sitting. Or without all of Tim's buddies challenging her nightly in full-court games.

Mostly, though, she couldn't have done it without what Olympic coach Theresa Grentz calls the "heart of a lion."

"I asked myself if I was crazy," the former Penn State guard said, reflecting on that first day. "At that point, I thought my chances were slim. If I would have tried out that day, I never would have made the team."

But she did. Oh, how she did.

McConnell was motivated by the prospect of winning a second gold medal. And coaching the girls team at Oakland Catholic High in Pittsburgh, she discovered how badly she wanted to play again.

Little Peter? Well, he's incentive, too.

"She wants to win this in front of him," Big Pete said. They'll all be in Barcelona -- McConnell in the Olympic Village, father and son in a hotel.

Of course, Little Peter probably won't remember anything, so Big Pete plans to videotape the U.S. games. The boy, though, already understands what's going on, why Mommy keeps going away.

"Big medal," he says. "Big medal."

*

Suzie McConnell married Pete Serio six months after the 1988 Olympics. At that point, her basketball career appeared over. Foreign club teams had little interest in a point guard who stood 5 feet 4 and weighed -- maybe -- 110 pounds.

McConnell did some promotional work in Pittsburgh, got the job at Oakland Catholic. Then, in February 1991, she approached Grentz at a game between a select women's team and a group of congressmen in Washington.

She was thinking Olympics.

Her son was 4 months old.

"She was a little out of shape," Grentz recalled. "She said, 'I'm going to get ready. Think I should?' I said, 'Give it a shot.' That was in February. I saw her in May, and she had trimmed down. She was in great shape."

That was the start. McConnell didn't make the Pan Am Games team last summer, but played on the secondary U.S. squad that won a gold medal at the World University Games.

Last season, while all of her Olympic teammates played professionally in Italy and Japan, she continued working with Tim, an assistant basketball coach at Waynesburg College.

"I told her when we started that I wasn't going to make her do anything I wouldn't make my own players do," said Tim, who is two years older than his sister. "But I wasn't just saying, 'Here's the stopwatch, let's go.'

"I participated 99.9 percent of the time, if the drills allowed. I didn't slack off. I tried to abuse her. And she stepped up to the challenge every time."

Together, they played one-on-one. Ran the hills of Pittsburgh. Even raced up the six levels of Three Rivers Stadium, where an acquaintance of Tim's is a member of the grounds crew.

All told, the workouts would last about 3 1/2 hours, and eventually included full-court games at Oakland Catholic. McConnell was the only woman, save an occasional visit from a member of the Pitt women's team.

"We had a list of about 20-25 guys we'd call," Tim said. "We'd get 14-15 over at the gym and play winners. But she never sat down. She played the whole time. That's what we were there for."

*

So, who watched the baby?

Why, Big Pete, of course.

"I love spending time with my son," said Big Pete, a former fireman who is planning to return to school. "It wasn't a big deal. It wasn't a sacrifice. He's at a great age. We have a lot of fun."

McConnell said jokingly, "They survive," but quickly added: "Actually, they more than survive. They get along very well. Pete has been very encouraging, very supportive. He made it all possible."

She regrets the time away, especially this summer, when she spent two weeks at the Olympic trials.

McConnell said: "Just hearing his little voice, hearing him say, 'Miss you, Mommy. Love you, Mommy' -- things like that keep you going."

Now, the journey is almost complete. Yesterday, McConnell's parents closed off their street and held another Olympic send-off for their daughter, with 400 to 500 people expected to attend.

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