The Home Advantage
One remains on the courts while the other has moved from the fairway to the ringside, but together, retired sports champs Gigi Fernandez and Jane Geddes have planted roots in the area
Of course Karson and Madison are going to have a competitive streak ten miles wide. Just look at their parents. One mom was a killer-instinct tennis pro who played in a (barely) controlled fury on her way to two Olympic golds and a Hall-of-Fame career. The other mom was a fountain-of-energy golf star who ran opponents off the greens on her way to the Hall of Fame.
Today these four-year-old twins are just as adorable as can be when they break into the office of their mom Gigi Fernandez, just next to the tennis courts at Stamford’s Chelsea Piers athletic emporium. Gigi, long retired from the tennis grind, now instructs the local youth, trains adult competitive leagues and manages the facility’s tennis program. But she always has time for the adorable ones, who are now being ushered in by their nanny.
For Gigi and her wife, retired golf champ Jane Geddes, getting pregnant with these kids was a testing ordeal, but what a payoff.
Gigi, raised the daughter of a doctor in Puerto Rico, grew up in a society that expected her to do, you know, the woman’s thing (marriage, kids, home); only gradually was respect given to her athletic gifts. “I had tremendous hand-eye coordination when I was little,” she says in a speedy, no-time-to-waste voice softened by the sight of the kids nearby. “I could rally in tennis when I was three.” Now she has close proximity to her cutie pies who attend preschool elsewhere in the massive complex, and of course have free run of every sport in the building, assuring that this boy and girl will not be picked last in any games in their lifetime.
Exactly one mile north of Gigi’s workplace is the headquarters of WWE—World Wrestling Entertainment—where Jane manages the talent when she’s not being a mom to Karson and Madison, which is a job she finds “awesome. The kids are at such a fun age now,” she says. “Every day is a new sport.”
Jane can look out her office window and see across the Sound to the four candy-striped smokestacks over Northport, Long Island, her stomping grounds. Having lived all over the world, she no longer has the “Lawn Guyland” accent, but she has retained the lightning-fast manner of talking and getting things done. And what she loves most of all is watching over the give-and-take of the kids, who, like all twins, wake up in the morning with a buddy-competitor right at hand.
“They’re constantly competing,” says Jane with a smile. “Just this morning, putting on shoes was a competition.” She adopts a lecturing tone. “Maddy says, ‘I don’t see why you were putting on his shoes first because I was behaving better.’ And I said, ‘This is not a competition,’ which is our standard word. Because everything is a competition. Everything. Which is good news-bad news.”
When it is suggested that two such moms would raise such a zealous brood, Jane breaks out with an easy laugh. “Right. Well, Gigi is ultra competitive. I’m not nearly as competitive as she is. By nature, I’m let’s-all-get-along. I’ve done all my competing.”
The fact that she’s working in the pro-wrestling empire, an industry built on mock brutality and explosive ringside soap operas, is quite a switch from the well-mannered country club of professional golf where the most severe term of approbation might be a chilly eyebrow lifting slowly. It’s a surprising switch only if you don’t know how absolutely driven Jane is. Gigi and Jane. And the kids.
Jane and Gigi really feel they’ve found a home now in Stamford and Darien. It was, however, a long, skylarking haul getting here.
“We lived our life in reverse,” Jane says one day, sitting in her immaculate office. “We both played sports and traveled around the world, which is what people do when they’re retired. And we got paid for it. Then we retired, went to school and then had kids. So everything is like a complete reversal.
“We’re very content with our life in a funny way. We’re older parents. We’ve done our traveling and been everywhere. So now we’re able to focus on the kids and hopefully take them places. They’re definitely victims of their environment, which I hope is good. You just hope.”
Growing up in Northport, Jane was a tomboy who played all the sports she could. When she was sixteen, her family uprooted and moved to South Carolina, which she felt was “fairly traumatic.”
In Charleston at that time, a local girl named Beth Daniel was getting a lot of attention for winning repeated U.S. Amateur golf championships. Jane’s mother offered to take Jane to see Beth’s teacher, Derek Hardy. Jane said no, but then dragged herself to the lesson anyway. After one lesson Derek immediately sought out Mrs. Geddes and said that if she’d just bring Jane back, he’d charge nothing. Bingo. Jane had a teacher for life. (Derek also didn’t do so badly with Beth Daniel, who went on to forty-one wins on the LPGA tour.)
After walking on to the golf team at Florida State University, Jane hit the LPGA Tour in 1983. In three years she broke through with her first win, a playoff victory in the U.S. Women’s Open. Although Open wins are supposed to be grueling, she waltzed out the next week and scored another victory. “I was just on a cloud. I won something like seven tournaments in a twelve-month period. Nothing was going wrong. I never even went to the driving range. I never even warmed up! It was just crazy. I had such a good feel and visual of my swing.” She went on to win another major and a total of fifteen wins before retiring in 2003.
At that point, she had already been dating Gigi, who retired from tennis in 1997. Both women were driven to have identities not tied up with their past athletic stature. “I wanted to be something besides ‘Jane Geddes, golfer,’” Jane says.
By her own account, the young Gigi was a raw talent when she left Puerto Rico for Clemson. She really had no one to emulate, being the first female athletic star of any kind from Puerto Rico. But in college she learned how to organize her life and how to practice. She made the NCAA Finals as a freshman, and bolted for the tennis tour.
Passionate and temperamental, with flashing coal-black eyes and a tremendous presence, she was made to be a star and she delivered. A specialist in doubles, Gigi went on to win 69 titles around the world. Usually partnered with Natasha Zvereva, she claimed seventeen Grand Slam women’s titles, including five U.S. Opens and four at Wimbledon.
Upon retiring, she got a degree in psychology at the University of South Florida and began dreaming up entrepreneurial ventures with Jane. “In the late nineties,” Gigi recalls, “we hoped to ride the Internet boom with an e-marketing portal called Planesia. It was a universal shopping cart before anything like that existed. Unfortunately, the bubble burst.” After this, Gigi enrolled at Rollins and earned an MBA.
Jane, meanwhile, blistered through a couple years at Stetson University in Florida and came out with a law degree. Although she had zero interest in a golf comeback, she could not resist the entreaties of the LPGA to join their executive ranks as their director of tournament business. The players who were once her sisters-in-arms now snarked that she’d “drunk the Kool-Aid.”
But management life was, she admits, the place where her act was finally polished. As a player, she was, to put it mildly, “vocal.” It was deputy commissioner Libba Galloway who set her straight. “I was always interrupting and getting my word in, and she was the one who said, ‘Just listen. Pay attention.’ I was getting red marks on my papers; it was like being in school again! In law school I was taught how to think critically. But Libba really helped me in another way.”
Transitioning from the ladies’ golf tour to the rough-and-snarly world of wrestling would seem to be a leap worthy of a sitcom. Things didn’t look so hot at first when Jane went in for an interview with her boss-to-be, Paul Michael Levesque, better known as Triple H. “I’d never heard of him. And I walk in and see this big guy with a ponytail and he was clearly a wrestler. I’m thinking, ‘Why am I here?’ Without saying anything we were thinking the same thing. He was thinking, ‘Why am I talking to a golfer?’”
At home in Greenwich, Triple H might well go by the stage name “Hunter Hearst Helmsley.” But around WWE’s Stamford headquarters and parading across pay-per-view TV screens, he is definitely Triple H, the 6-foot-4 bearded, barrel-bicepped Adonis who glories in the shiny, sweaty S&M pageantry. In the executive offices, he is the power behind the throne, along with his wife, Stephanie McMahon, daughter of empire-builders Vince and Linda McMahon.
“As we sat there and talked, we learned there were so many things we had in common,” continues Jane. For her, the WWE life became another life on the road, only the big show was not in the sunlit greens but in an arena lit by fireworks. The wrestlers, she believes, are “unbelievably dedicated to their craft.” Several have become close friends.
The biggest change to hit WWE was, she says, the switch to what might be called a PG rating five years ago, perhaps coincident with Linda McMahon’s Senate runs in 2010 and 2012. “It’s not what it used to be,” Jane admits. “For us, moms and kids are our focus now.”
Besides excising WWE’s soft-porn past, Jane has also had to busy herself with the health of its stars. “The company has transformed,” she says, adding that neurologists have been added to the staff. “We do so much testing—whether it’s concussion testing, drug testing or wellness cardiac—we’ll put it up against anyone now. That was the goal. ‘You think we’re not doing the right thing? Well, we’ll show you that we are.’ I can vouch for it because I’m in charge.
“We try to look like we’re killing the other guy,” she smiles. “But we’re not.”
When the local schools let out at 2:30, Chelsea Piers starts ringing with hundreds of kids swinging from ropes, lapping the pools, crashing the ice. Under the ballooning ceiling of the tennis courts, future tennis players go at it like an army of Novaks, Rafas and Vikas. More than a thousand kids and adults hit these courts.
With Gigi prowling the courts like a panther, wiry little twelve-year-old players stage massive rallies, six, seven shots across, and they’re nailing the corners like wily old pros. It’s astonishing stuff. During a break, however, Gigi clears the air. “They’re using low-compression balls for training,” she says, surveying the action. “If those were regular balls, they’d be bouncing ten feet in the air.”
Gigi has always had an eye for talent. Once, at the French Open, she noticed a twelve-year-old girl in the junior division who showed some special gift. Two years later in Hamburg, Gigi’s partner was hurt, and so Gigi asked that young girl to double with her. This is how Martina Hingis, then fourteen, earned her first professional victory.
Walking through the tennis armory that towers above her, Gigi seems resolute as a top-kick sergeant. “I had to create the tennis program here from scratch. I hired every one of the instructors—we probably got a hundred resumes from teachers at the local clubs. We’ve probably got the best staff in Fairfield County.”
She looks up sharply and her eyes get a crinkly twinkle. “You know, the MBA taught me how to manage a business, but I had to learn how to manage myself. The life of an athlete that I led for seventeen years, that’s not the real world. And I tell you, it’s been an adjustment learning how to make sure that fifteen people get along well here.”
Back in the office, Karson and Madison are busily drawing when they’re not crawling all over Gigi. “We take them apple picking, camping. We’ve been skiing.” Next summer Jane will get golf clubs in their hands.
Having lived all over, Gigi and Jane have found the place they’d like to call home. They’re currently living in Darien, and looking for a house to buy. They regularly prowl the local restaurants in the area. “We’re big goer-outer eaters,” Jane proffers. “I wish there were more places with Puerto Rican food,” Gigi says. Her expression is sharp and determined, the look of someone who has a goal now and you better not get in the way.
She softens. “You know, when people use the expression ‘You’re going through a change of life,’ they make it sound like something [bad]. But [change] can make life better.”