It is never easy being the youngest of five siblings by six years, especially when all of them are NCAA-caliber athletes. In addition to all of his siblings’ success, his parents are extremely successful in the pool – his father as a former swimmer and current coach and his mom a former 18-time All-American.
This is the reality J.J. Pursley grew up in.
The Pursley dynasty
The dynasty of the Pursleys dates back to the late 1960s and early 1970s, starting with Dennis, the father of the family. He was an All-SEC swimmer in 1969 and won the 200-meter backstroke SEC title that same year. He then moved onto being one of the most recognizable swim coaches in the history of the sport, which includes being the inaugural director for the U.S. Olympic team and the head coach of the 2012 British Olympic team along with multiple college teams. Eventually, he married Mary Jo, the LSU All-American.
Brian Pursley, the oldest of the five Pursley children, played soccer and swam all the way up until high school. Then, he decided to swim at Colorado School of Mines before transferring to North Carolina State. While attending the former, he won the Division II title in the 100-meter breaststroke, and he is still ranked in the top five at NC State in two different events. Brian went into coaching after his collegiate career was over. He was an assistant coach at NC State and Auburn.
Lisa Ebling is the Pursleys’ only daughter and the second oldest of the children. She swam at the University of Arizona, where she was a three-time All-American and part of the 2006 national championship team. After school, she went on to teach third grade before ultimately deciding to join her brother and father in the coaching world because teaching wasn’t competitive enough for her. Lisa started out as an assistant coach at Rutgers, then moved onto her father Dennis’s staff at the same position. She is currently in her first season as the head coach of the women’s team at Northern Colorado.
David Pursley also swam for Arizona, but unlike anyone else in his family, he was a distance swimmer. He later came to coach as an assistant at Alabama.
Finally, there’s Steve Pursley, the lone exception of the family. He was not a swimmer. Instead, he played football. He made stops in the Cleveland Browns’ organization and Alabama’s football program before joining Northwestern as a graduate assistant coach.
Making the team
The path to the NCAA was different for J.J. than anyone else in his family. Instead of receiving a scholarship to be a part of a college swim team, he was one of the hopeful walk-ons.
Forgoing the opportunity to stay close to his Arizona home, J.J. decided to enroll at Alabama. He wanted to swim, and Alabama was his father’s new team.
“It was definitely a huge part of my decision,” J.J. said. “Before he took this job, I was probably going to just go in-state in Arizona. Then he took this job, and it opened the door for this great opportunity. Once this happened, I didn’t think about anything else, just going to Alabama.”
J.J. then attempted to be a walk-on for the Crimson Tide’s men’s team. One key person, however, was not in the decision process that determines the walk-ons- J.J.’s father removed himself from any of the action.
“I left it in the hands of the team leaders,” Dennis said. “I even went so far as to do it on a secret ballot, so they wouldn’t feel any pressure to make any choices or decisions to include him because he is my son.”
The fate of J.J.’s career at Alabama was left in the hands of the team, who had to decide if he could help the team’s performance in meets and in the culture Dennis was trying to instill in the team.
“I didn’t want it to look like he was playing favorites either. That would be bad for both of us,” J.J. said. “He still gives me pointers. If anything, we’ve grown closer the last four years. Getting this opportunity to swim for him, he’s one of the best coaches in the sport, and an even better dad. It’s been nothing but positive.”
The University of Alabama has been a special place for the Pursley family. Four of the children have been students here at some point in time, one as an undergraduate, and three for their master’s degrees. Two of the children were on the staff for a couple of years, too.
“When I accepted this position here four years ago, to be honest, I wasn’t thinking on the front end of all the potential benefit there would be to our family,” Dennis said. “Our five kids were kind of scattered. The youngest was the only one still living at home and the others were trying to get their foot in the door.”
Dennis said there’s no way he can describe the benefit his family has received from this opportunity.
“It’s been more than I ever could have dreamed of,” he said. “It’s been a very special experience for us.”
By the time J.J. got to the University, Lisa and David were on the staff with their father. Since J.J. is six years younger than his siblings, they were all out of the house by the time he turned 12.
J.J. has enjoyed having his father as his coach, but he has also liked having some of his siblings around.
“Honestly it’s a dream come true, especially when I had my brother and sister on the staff,” he said. “I ended up making up for all that lost time, it’s just been awesome.”
Working with family sometimes doesn’t work out for various reasons, but Dennis said that the experience couldn’t have been any better. He has been able to see his children’s talents, abilities and work ethic in a way he wouldn’t have as just a parent.
J.J. is now a senior on the team and about to graduate from Alabama. Like his siblings, J.J. says he could see himself …read more
Source:: The Crimson White Sports