Competitive spirit nets them success
Family isn’t just an important thing. For some, it’s everything. It’s certainly proved that way for the McNeelys.
The family got its start when basketball standout Michelle, who was raised in Colonial Heights, moved away to Louisville, and then back to the area. That’s when she met Mike McNeely, who was a football player at Colonial Heights known for his dashing mullet. It was love at first sight.
They finished their degrees by way of Richard Bland and VCU and soon, there were children – Taylor and Caleb – on the way. The family now lives at and runs a horse farm, named Irongait, on Branders Bridge Road.
Now, they have one of the more intriguing – if not unlikely – and successful sports families in the area. Daughter Taylor, starred on the volleyball court for Bridgewater (Div. III) and is finishing her health and exercise science degree with a minor in business administration. Son, Caleb, has turned globetrotter and is on the cusp of becoming a pro skateboarder.
Although Taylor’s first love was riding horses, her eventual love of volleyball was unmatched by one thing: her height. Standing at 5-3, you certainly won’t find a page in a volleyball textbook that reads: “find all the short people you can to play.” The authors of such books hadn’t met Taylor. It was an obstacle she would overcome.
“Obviously, my height has put me at a disadvantage when it comes to playing front row, it was something that I
had known was coming,” Taylor said. “I had to accept that I would never play front row competitively at the collegiate level. However, being short has helped tremendously defensively.”
Bingo! Taylor roamed the back line for volleyball, playing libero. There’s a sports adage that playing defense is about heart. Her hustle, competitive spirit and athleticism led her to be one of the best in the state at both the high school level at L.C. Bird, and in the ODAC.
With Taylor as a part of a talented roster that included other eventual college athletes such as Julia Stech (Randolph Macon), Courtney Wiseman (Barton College), Jessica Bradbury (Hollins) and others, L.C. Bird won the Conference 12 title in 2013, a school first, then followed that up with a 2014 appearance in the 5A region tournament. Of the group, McNeely had the most successful college career.
At Bridgewater in her freshman season (2016), she fought and won a starting position by midseason. The Eagles had their struggles, finishing 8-23 . As Taylor, who was now a team captain, and the Eagles continued to grow, they flourished, finishing 23-7 in 2019.
“The transition was definitely something to get used to,” said Taylor. “It’s still volleyball, but there is a different level of experience is needed in order to get playing time. I think a big part of that is gaining mental toughness,” she continued. “You play six days out of the week and have lifts three to four days out of the week. It’s taxing, and you have to meet new expectations that you may have never even thought about.”
During her senior season, Taylor used her lower center of gravity to receive VaSID All-State honors for her performance and was also named first team All-ODAC. Her honors came after she controlled the back line, amassing 516 digs and 41 service aces. That dig total ranked third all-time in a single season at Bridgewater. For her career, she finished with 1,410 digs, fourth most all-time in Bridgewater history.
Caleb, in the words of his father, took a different path in life from perhaps “a more traditional recipe.” While both Taylor and he were excellent academically, Caleb’s didn’t fall in love with a varsity sport in high school.
It started in the fourth grade, when a friend, Jake Hull, introduced him to a Tech deck. Tech decks were wildly popular with children and teens in the late ’90s and early 2000s. A miniature skateboard that came with tools, it could be assembled and disassembled, a toy with a sandpaper surface to skate with your finger tips. Then came the Tony Hawk: Pro Skater video game franchise, Arcade-style video games where you control a skater, performing tricks to earn points. It was the second highest selling console game in 2000. Caleb, and many others, were hooked.
“Luckily, Christmas was around the corner,” Caleb said. “So, of course, I asked for it and thankfully, Santa provided. The rest is history.”
While Caleb loved the video game, he made the wise choice of not staying in to play it all the time; he kept going outside to skate. He practiced tirelessly, even setting up ramps and boxes in a horse barn so that he could skate even when it was raining.
“Growing up skating in a barn was actually such a treat,” Caleb explained. “It let me use my imagination to create obstacles out of things like particle board and pallets,” he continued. “It’s a really special thing because you get to reinterpret what’s around you, and it’s always new and refreshing, as opposed to a skatepark which is the same every time.”
Looking up to skaters from Dominion, a local shop that’s now called Venue, Caleb and friends made his own videos, uploading them to YouTube. That’s where he met Thomas Goldman, now a longtime friend and professional photographer. Starting with a competition at Chimborazo Park in Church Hill, they continued to make skate videos together. Eventually, Caleb earned a spot on the skate team at Dominion, who helped him get noticed in the mainstream.
Now, Caleb has been featured in such publications as Thrasher,
TransWorld Skating, FreeSkate and Skate Jawn. Major skating brands such as Vans, HUF, Spitfire and others have sponsored Caleb in branding, and he could sign a professional contract in the coming months. His skating has already led him to travel all over the United States and internationally to Sweden, Denmark and Norway. With trips scheduled for places like Puerto Rico, Japan, Brazil and Italy, he’s not stopping anytime soon.
Telling your parents that you were going to become a professional skateboarder may not have been taken seriously in some households, but the McNeelys took what is perhaps, a different approach.
Through both Taylor and Caleb’s athletic adventures, Michelle and Michael not only provided athletic genes but guidance and encouragement. Instead of advising Taylor to take up a different sport because of her height, they helped her keep at it, both playing with her and in leagues of their own at Richmond Volleyball Club.
Instead of viewing skateboarding as a hobby, they gave Caleb the space and materials to skate when it was rainy. That undoubtedly helped him become the skater he is today.
“I had to commit very early on to give them their space to become themselves,” said Mike. “We had to feed them wisdom along the way and provide structure and guidelines as necessary.”
“We are both very proud of our kids accomplishments and who they have become,” said Michelle.
With all of the various talents possessed and resources used, Taylor and Caleb couldn’t have done it without one thing: family.