The ability to focus and being efficient with his time are two of the keys to Kevin VanDam's phenomenal success in bass fishing. They are also traits shared by his wife, Sherry. As a mother of 9-year-old twins — Jackson & Nicholas — keeping the VanDam household and the VanDam business running smoothly is a job that she takes seriously.
On a snowy Michigan morning in February, we sat down with Sherry in the office she shares with Kevin to talk about the pressures of being at the top of this growing sport.
"It's crazy and it gets busier and busier all the time. The demands of sponsor obligations are growing, the schedule is growing and also fan interaction, which of course we think is great, but it's growing too," she said.
In addition to competing on the CITGO Bassmaster Tour, Kevin is one of the most sought after speakers in the bass fishing world.
Sherry elaborated on Kevin's hectic schedule.
"There's really not an off season for us. During the fishing season, he's so busy going from tournament to tournament, just as all the rest of the pros do. When he is home we try very hard for him to have quality time with our children when they aren't in school.
"We both focus hard on that relationship. We don't want our boys to grow up and think their dad had a wonderful career, but we didn't have much of a relationship. So that's a big priority for us. Our kids mean too much to Kevin to not really be involved when he can be and to make up for that time when he's gone. So that keeps us busy."
Always an eye on the clock
When Kevin is at home during the school year, both he and Sherry work hard to finish as much business as possible while the kids are in school — allowing for more family time when the boys get home.
"Of course, everybody else is not on that same schedule so we end up doing some work after school hours too, but we try to do as much as we can while they are at school so that when they come home he can focus on them. Kevin likes to go to all their sports games and practices."
When the tournament season slows down, VanDam's calendar stays full.
"He does at least 30 speaking engagements a year. He donates so much time to kids, to churches, to youth camps, to men's groups as well as sports shows and Bassmaster University. He talks to schools and to biology classes. He does television appearances and a lot of things for Bass Pro Shops and Strike King. Sometime it seems like there are not enough hours in the week these days."
The VanDam's also receive weekly batches of fan mail that they try to answer personally. They process and fulfill orders for Kevin's two books, and they manage relationships with his sponsors and industry executives. Sherry also manages all of his travel and accommodations when he is on the road during the tournament season.
"I don't think most people have any idea the kind of pressure Kevin is under off the water," said his good friend, fellow Michigander and ESPN Outdoors television commentator, Mark Zona. "I've been with the guy a lot when he is trying to relax and spend time with his family. His phone is always ringing."
On the road
In 2007, the tournament schedule will increase dramatically with 11 Elite Series events and three Majors.
"We're working on his summer schedule right now as far as when it makes sense for me and the boys to join him on the road," Sherry noted. "And we're trying to figure out when he might be able to fly home in between events, but you have to realize that these guys have their boats and their Suburbans and they can't just pull up into the airport parking lot and leave them.
"All their tackle and equipment is in their vehicle. You can really only fly from cities where you know someone or there's a Tracker dealer — someone you can trust to leave your equipment with and you won't be sitting at home worrying about whether everything is going to there when you get back. You have to look at it all and figure it out."
One week after the Bassmaster Classic, the Elite Series begins on Lake Amistad in extreme south Texas, followed by a stop at Lake Sam Rayburn in the east-central part of the state the next weekend.
"Obviously there will be some tournaments where if he doesn't do well, he might be able to come home, but there will be weeks where even if he doesn't make the cut it won't make sense for him to come all the way home to Michigan," Sherry explained. "So between February and September, he's only guaranteed two weekends at home."
Two weekends at home in eight months. That puts preserving family time in a new perspective.
CEO & star … COO & mom
The VanDams approach professional fishing as a business, as do most professional anglers, however, few businesses deal with the challenges that abound in pro angler business/family scenario. It's almost as if the Chief Executive officer is also a big television star and the Chief Operating Officer is also a mom. Finding a balance between the two is what the VanDams strive for.
"He has a family and I know that this time (when the kids are young) is so short so I have to protect it. We know he'll be gone next week and sometimes you don't even know what tomorrow will bring. So we have to stay grounded in our family life and realize that is the top priority.
"We have to have time as a family. There have been some promotional things he hasn't been able to do when we had family things planned and I wasn't willing to let that time go. Family is just as important as the business side. I think in the long run, most people understand. I just want the boys to have their dad-time and I want him to have his dad-time."
The VanDams also keep an active hand in their kids' education. In fact, Sherry is president of the PTO at her sons' school. And while dad may be a globe-trotting television star, he makes time for his kids while they're at school as well.
"Two years ago Kevin and I were the chairpersons of the press committee for our school district. We passed a $21 million bond issue to get a new high school built here in Kalamazoo. So we try to be very involved in the kids' education," Sherry said.
"Kevin will participate and help in any fundraisers and activities we do at the school when he is home. Most of the people in our community know us and they don't think he's a big deal. He doesn't have any ego about it at all. He'll get up on the ladder to put up Christmas decorations or pitch in for the school grounds clean up. Whatever needs to be done he'll do, because he's Jackson and Nicholas' father and that's his first and foremost role.
"When he is traveling we talk every day, normally about three times," Sherry said. "He tries to call the boys when they are getting ready for school to talk to them before they leave for the bus. Then he will call midday to check in with me. There may be phone calls that I can return for him or something I can take care of for him. Then we always talk each night to see how each other's days went."
They also continue to take care of business — even during the competition days.
"Kevin has never had an issue with doing business during a tournament. We talk about whatever business issues are at hand whether he is competing or not. He really is very good at just leaving it."
VanDam is known for his mental toughness as a professional angler, but is quick to admit that his wife has played a major role in his success.
According to the Kalamazoo Kid himself, "She's the brains of the operation, trust me — not me."