Credit: Ben Berliner

As sports fans across America look forward to next week’s airing of the Super Bowl and the Winter Olympics, residents of the Willows of Potomac have extra reasons to celebrate: two of their own will be competing.

Willows natives Mack Hollins and Haley Skarupa, both 24 and graduates of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, are gearing up to play on the global stage. Hollins, a rookie wide receiver, will compete with the Philadelphia Eagles against the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on Sunday, while Skarupa, a forward hockey player, will represent Team USA in South Korea. The Olympic opening ceremonies will be held Feb. 9.

On a bright and unusually balmy January afternoon, families of the two athletes, along with friends and neighbors, gathered Saturday outside of the Willows Clubhouse. As the “Olympic Fanfare” and “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band blasted from speakers, balloons danced in the wind—red, white, and blue for Team USA along with green and white to represent the team colors of the Eagles. Karyn Schmitt-Hollins, Mack’s mom, told a friend that this is the first time she’s painted her nails green.

As Schmitt-Hollins and Haley’s mother, Penny Skarupa, addressed the gathering, one thing became clear: the two young athletes overcame significant hurdles to reach the upper echelons of their respective sports.

After years of hard work and success as a player for Boston College, Haley’s dreams of playing in the Olympics were “pretty much shattered in May” when she was left off the Olympic team, Penny Skarupa explained. After a summer away from hockey, Haley took to the ice again in October for additional team tryouts. By Christmas, she learned she would be headed to South Korea as part of Team USA. “And that’s when I cried for two days,” Penny said with a smile, to rousing applause from a crowd of about 40 well-wishers. “Don’t get discouraged,” she said. “It was not easy.” 

Mack Hollins faced an uphill battle after leaving high school, where he played for the Wootton football team. He was a walk-on at the University of North Carolina. Then he suffered a broken collarbone during his senior year. “We thought that his career was over,” his mother said. The family didn’t even hold a draft party last year for fear of jinxing his chances at being selected for an NFL team. Yet he was drafted by the Eagles in the fourth round. “Here we stand today,” she said as the crowd cheered and applauded. “It’s just mind-boggling … it’s doable. Believe me. With a lot of hard work for sure.”

The two families, who live five houses apart, have memories of a young Haley playing roller hockey on a neighbor’s driveway and of Mack mowing his family’s lawn. Haley declined her mother’s suggestions to try less raucous sports, such as gymnastics, and was encouraged by her older brother, Dylan, to compete in hockey, said Penny Skarupa, an advertising account executive for Bethesda Magazine.

Drew Davis, clad in an official Hollins jersey, said that even back in middle school, his childhood friend was determined to excel in football and to play in the NFL. Davis says he plans to travel to Philadelphia next week to cheer for the Eagles with local fans. Haley’s parents plan to attend the Olympics and Dylan Skarupa also will fly to South Korea in February, accompanied by his 80-year-old grandmother. Mack’s parents will attend the Super Bowl in Minneapolis.

 Those attending the gathering have a working theory about how one neighborhood could produce two top athletes. It’s in the water, joked Lisa Rotello and Diane Litofsky. “The Willows Water.”

The gathering was organized by Leslie Stein of Rockville, whose son played hockey with Haley’s brother. “I was thinking about how incredible it was that in one community there were two athletes” who have “achieved the dream of competing in the pinnacle event for their respective sports.”

Stein pulled the event together in three days with help from local businesses that lent equipment and assisted with providing food and equipment. “Everyone did their part and it all came together,” Stein said.

Above left photo: Haley Skarupa’s brother and mom, Dylan Skarupa and Penny Skarupa. Second photo: Mack Hollins’ brother, mom and dad, Drew Hollins, Karyn Schmitt-Hollins, and Richard Hollins. Credit: Ben Berliner

Harrison Halem, Andrew Stein, and Drew Davis share stories about growing up with Mack Hollins. Credit: Ben Berliner