May 27, 2010

By Marty Gitlin
Special to

OBERLIN, Ohio - Parents who have excelled in a particular sport sometimes allow their egos to dictate the sports in which they urge their children to play. They hope to raise a chip off the old block.

Such, however, was the not the case with Mike Woods and son Max. The former was one of the premier speed skaters in the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, Mike won a World Championship in that sport and placed fourth in the 10,000-meter competition in the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. But he never pushed Max into speed skating. In fact, he didn't even give the kid the slightest nudge.

Instead, he stood proud as Max embraced tennis, a sport his father knew little about. The younger Woods became exceptional in his own right. He plays fourth singles and first doubles as a junior for Washington University (St. Louis), which finished fourth in the team portion of the Division III men's championships.

Woods and partner Isaac Stein have compiled a 24-7 record this season and are the third-ranked team in Division III.

When asked it he was thankful that his father never attempted to force him into speed skating, Woods was quick to answer.

"Oh, yeah," he said forcefully. "I've thought a lot about that. I've thought that if I had been doing speed skating, I wouldn't have the same relationship with my father that I do right now.

"I knew what he had done (in speed skating), but it was never a focus. He coached a bunch of guys in speed skating and I knew those guys, but it's never been in the forefront. The only thing I got from him is that I learned that it's not just about talent or a God-given gift. What I got from him is that it's all about working hard day in and day out."

Little else matters for the elder Woods, who made a point in his fatherhood to keep his ego in check. One might believe Woods had every right to brag about his achievements to his son. After all, he came within less than three seconds of winning a bronze medal in the Olympics and might have snagged one if not for the weather conditions.

"Anyone who finishes fourth in the Olympics is going to be mad," admitted Mike Woods, who is now an anesthesiologist. "Anytime you can place in the Top 5, that's pretty good. But I was unhappy that day.

"Speed skating was very weather-related back then. The 10,000-meters was close to a five-hour event. There are only two guys on the track at one time and the weather changed. The silver medal finisher competed in different weather than I did."

That however, seems like ancient history to Woods. What is far more important and relevant to him is raising an emotionally, mentally and physically healthy son. And that means allowing Max to forge his own future professionally and athletically.

"My oldest son (Nick) was in speed skating for just a little bit when he was very young, but I didn't know anything about (tennis) when Max got started," he explained. "It's good for kids to have their own thing. I wanted them to do what they wanted to do and with Max it was tennis from day one."

As for following in his dad's footsteps as a doctor, Max has no idea. What he does know is that he plans on attending graduate school and earning his Ph D. After that, he remains an open book.

"We'll see," he said. "I haven't figured it out yet exactly."

What he has figured out are his strengths and weaknesses on a tennis court. And as he competes in the individual portion of the championships this week, that is particularly important.

"I volley well," he said. "I need work on my serve. And my ground strokes depend on the day. But my coach taught me to be aggressive and every shot I'm moving forward. I try to attack."

Just like his father did on the speed skating rink many years ago.