By Walter Villa
Every year on Father’s Day, McKenzie Kessel and her brother Cody paint their dad’s car.
“We’ll write: ‘No. 1 Dad’ or ‘Best Dad in the World’ with an arrow pointing to the driver’s seat,” McKenzie said. “Or we’ll say: ‘Honk if you love your Dad.’
“It still makes my dad light up. He leaves it on his car until almost the next Father’s Day.”
McKenzie and Cody’s dad is John Kessel, the director of sport development for USA Volleyball who is a divorcee and their primary caretaker.
McKenzie, a 5-foot-9 libero, won back-to-back state titles the past two years at Cheyenne Mountain (Colorado Springs, Colo.). She finished her senior year last month and is preparing to play Division III volleyball at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine) this fall.
Cody, 20, is a 6-6 outside hitter at Princeton University. As a freshman this past season, he used his 39-inch vertical leap to lead the Tigers in kills and points.
“People see that we play volleyball and say, ‘Oh, of course, Kessel family,’ ” said McKenzie, 18. “But he never pushed us to play. I quit club volleyball two years ago because I wanted to play high school lacrosse, and he was totally supportive.”
McKenzie was 3 years old when her parents split up. Since then, she, Cody and John have called themselves the “Kessel-ateers”.
Cody said his bond with his sister has only strengthened in recent years.
“We’re best friends, through and through,” Cody said. “Maybe the divorce contributed to (our closeness), but I don’t think it will ever change in my entire life.”
It’s a matter of trust
Both siblings credit their father for providing a loving and stable home.
McKenzie said her father is the most patient and trusting person she’s ever met. For example, he let his kids decide on their own rules and curfews, which were more flexible than that of their friends.
“He is very respectful of our thoughts and, because of that, we never want to disappoint him,” McKenzie said. “Luckily, we’ve never gotten into trouble.”
John has taken his kids to Fiji, Egypt and Canada, and they plan to go to Germany this summer. When he is invited to teach at a volleyball clinic, the deal that he typically makes is that he will do it for free as long as they pay for his kids’ flights.
An example of the family’s love for travel and adventure came in February of 2002, when the three were watching the Salt Lake City Olympics on television. Cody, then 10, remarked about “how cool” it would be to attend since it was fairly close.
The next day -- without anything having been planned -- the Kessels drove to Salt Lake City, stayed with friends and bought tickets to hockey and cross-country skiing from scalpers.
For John, each trip is an opportunity to share with his kids whatever information comes to mind, from volleyball strategy to the formation of clouds.
John’s mother was a first-grade teacher, and that is the way he parents and coaches. He rewards effort over outcome.
“If a child misspells a word, you don’t ask him to drop and give you 20 (push-ups),” John said. “You teach him how to spell the word correctly.
“John Wooden once said that if you want to learn how to coach, learn how to teach.”
John is not always in teacher mode, though. Sometimes being a parent means comforting a child. And when McKenzie texts her dad that she is having a bad day, he makes sure to bring home her favorite ice cream: Ben & Jerry’s Coffee HEATH Bar Crunch.
King of the mountain
But while the Kessels have bonded over everything from traveling to dessert, this is still a volleyball family at its core. And another Father’s Day tradition -- beyond the car paint -- is the King of the Mountain outdoor volleyball doubles tournament, held each year in Vail, Colo.
This is the 40th annual tournament, and John, 59, has been playing since the beginning.
But in 2001, he convinced organizers to add Father/Son and Father/Daughter divisions, from 18-under to 12-under.
Last year, more than 500 teams competed in all divisions, including open, seniors, co-ed and masters.
The tournament runs Friday through Sunday and features a free junior’s clinic.
John and Cody have won the Father/Son division three times, and John and McKenzie have finished as high as third in the Father/Daughter competition.
“It’s cool because it is a tournament my dad has done since he had long hair and thick glasses,” McKenzie said of her father, who is 6-3 and played club volleyball at Colorado College. “He is getting older, for sure, but he has so much court savvy that he can make a winning shot without jumping.”
McKenzie said the tournament is one of the highlights of her summer. And even though this is the first year Cody will be unable to attend -- he will be playing in an international competition in Japan -- it still figures to be a special weekend.
“My friends come up and play doubles, my dad does clinics -- every day there’s something,” McKenzie said. “It’s magical. Whenever we talk about Vail, everyone lights up.”