Janet Elway excels as
athlete, mother, volunteer
By KATHY SMITH
Photography RICK HEITMAN and KIT WILLIAMS
Most Coloradoans recognize Janet Buchan Elway, but what they may not know about is her status as a world-class athlete, her role as a devoted mother and her dedication to children's causes.
It's not often you meet a woman of her stature and walk away feeling you've just met a new best friend. Elway's urbane style is magnetic — you feel like you've known her for a lifetime. She accomplishes all of the personal, family and charitable demands made of her with the grace and aplomb of a first lady.
Her elite athletic career got a kick start her junior year at Woodrow Wilson High School in Tacoma. While swimming at the Tilt meet in Paris, she broke an American record in the short course 400-meter individual medley — butterfly, back, breast and freestyle.
Following graduation, Elway earned a spot at the World University games in Mexico City. Two days before the meet, she contracted stomach flu and suffered a high fever and chills. The day of the meet, in a weakened condition, she competed once again in the 400-meter IM. As one of the most physically challenging swimming events of all, the IM requires the utmost strength and concentration. Showing an amazing amount of fortitude and athleticism, even though weakened, Elway captured the gold. It seemed for a long while that she owned the 400 IM.
Three nationally recognized swimming schools recruited her in 1979 —USC, the University of Texas and Stanford. "I was just ready to sign with USC when the Stanford offer for a full-tuition scholarship arrived, and I was so glad, as that was the school I wanted the most," Elway says.
She couldn't have had a more stellar performance as a freshman. In the collegiate national championship meet in Las Vegas, Elway not only set the national record in her event, but she was the high point winner for the entire meet, accumulating the highest number of points in six events. "It was pretty great my freshman year at Stanford when we were able to win the meet, and I was able to contribute to the team like that," she recalls.
While training her freshman year as a Stanford Cardinal, she set her goals on the 1980 Olympic trials. However, after President Carter opted to boycott the Olympics in Moscow because of Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, the Olympics were no longer an option. Then, after all the years of arm rotations, she suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. Ligaments and tendons were repaired by a nationally known surgeon, but Elway was left with limited range of motion. She never fully recovered, and her comeback proved to be a series of athletic disappointments.
"It was hard to hang up my Speedo swimsuit, but I had to. I couldn't get back to the same level I was at before the surgery," she says. Her accomplished swimming career was over. She swam with the team for another year and a half, but eventually gave up the sport. She still swims, and it's not hard to imagine her fit, lithe physique gracefully piercing the waters of the pool today as she did in her glory days.
The next phase
With athletics behind her, Elway concentrated on academics, friends and dating. She says, "It gave me time to have a normal life, and I enjoyed that." After graduation in 1983, with a B.S. in sociology, Janet became engaged to John Elway. The couple married in March 1984 and moved to Denver to become a part of the Denver Broncos organization, and it seemed from the moment the plane landed in Denver, they were catapulted into the spotlight.
She had four children in six years and was busy being a mom. "I was very naive in a positive way when I was first married. I insulated myself and the kids from the press and the spotlight," she says. The four Elway children — Jessica, born October 1985; Jordan, June 1987; Jack, August 1989; and Juliana, March 1991 — are Elway's shining stars.
To say she was busy is an understatement. She spent her days running the kids to and from school, sports, Bible study and church. "I was married to a bigger-than-life man, and my role was to keep the house as calm and normal as possible," she explains. Eventually, as the kids grew older and fame evolved, Bronco events and fame became central to their lives.
Still, Elway was determined to have their children lead "normal" lives. Each child attended public schools. "I didn't feel we were different. I just wanted the kids to have a good education and knew our schools, Cherry Hills Village Elementary and Cherry Hills High School, were great schools," she says.
Elway dedicated her time to her children, and they have always come first in her life. In the early years, the girls were involved in soccer, and Jack, in football and basketball. Being a devoted mother "was an easy role," she explains. Having spent many weekends at Banbury soccer fields, she comments, "I wanted to spend as much time as possible with my kids, and so I accompanied them on sports trips as a chaperone. Those are great memories. I had so much fun being with them." It was hard missing some of their games but occasionally necessary when the events overlapped. "If I missed a game one week, I'd make sure I'd be there the next," she says.
With all of the children close in age, sports and school activities demanded many hours and miles of driving. It's hard to imagine Elway's busy life, but as she reflects on it, you sense the love and closeness she has for every moment. She raced between fields, courts and schools every day. She also volunteered with the Kempe foundation for child abuse. "I didn't have a lot of time to do volunteer work, but did as much as I could. I've always loved children," Elway says.
Reaching out to others
Today, she also works with another child-related charity — Adam's Camp. Her close friend Karel Horney's son, Adam, has cerebral palsy, and Horney created a camp at Snow Mountain Ranch for children like hers. Elway joined the board of directors and volunteers in the community to raise awareness of children with disabilities. The camp, which offers programs for special-needs kids from infants to teenagers, was an inspiration for Elway's eponymously named Janet's Camp.
Janet's Camp came at the urging of her longtime friend, Jean Galloway. "Jean is one of the kindest, wisest and most generous women I know. When she suggested this, I said yes immediately," Elway says, explaining the camp's goal. Every summer she turns her backyard into a huge adult- camp-themed party. The beneficiaries are children, of course. Some 250 underprivileged children will be sponsored to attend YMCA camps in Colorado. She says, "I think the fund-raiser will generate enough money to sponsor these kids, and it is truly rewarding for me." She hopes to raise $100,000, enough to support these children for two weeks of camp.
Development coordinator Laurie Porter is also instrumental in helping with Janet’s Camp. She says, ”We knew a couple of years ago that we had to implement a program to subsidize the children we were turning away.” In 2005 they turned away at least 100 children because of a lack of available funds.
The YMCA wanted a unique, intimate event to encourage leaders in the community to join their drive to give children a chance, and with Elway’s involvement, they felt many community leaders and professional athletes would attend to support her special cause.
Elway feels very grateful to her board of directors: Jamie Angelique, David Alexander, Josh Hanfling, Lisa Herzlich, Kimball Howell, Diane Honig, Betsy Wills, Beth Jackman, and her inspiration, Jean Galloway. "Every one of these members has worked very hard to make this camp a reality for the kids," she says.
It doesn’t take much urging to persuade Elway to talk about her children. The oldest daughter, Jessica, followed her mother's footsteps and attends Stanford on a basketball scholarship. She has often been called upon to assume a leadership role with the other siblings. "When she spoke for the other kids at the Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony, we were all so very proud of her," Elway recalls.
Jordan was the captain of her lacrosse team at Cherry Creek High School and is now at the University of Virginia on a lacrosse scholarship. “With the girls on both coasts, it's a challenge to get out to see them play, but I will get to a couple of games each year," Elway says.
Of all the children, Jack probably has the most pressure on him, because of the lineage of football greats. As the quarterback at Cherry Creek High School, Jack is not overwhelmed, even with the amount of pressure he has on his shoulders. "Even though there are tremendous expectations of him, he is very balanced and confident. He absolutely loves the sport of football," Elway says. Her biggest concern is that he will not get hurt and that he has fun.
Growing up the baby of the family, Juliana (JuJu) spent many years in a car seat traveling to the other kids' sporting and school events. "Juliana is just a love. We are so close, and I have the fondest memories of toting her on my hip and holding her hand," Elway remarks with a smile. She recalls a funny story about JuJu’s birth: "All of us are blondes, and when Juliana was born with pitch-black hair, for about the first 30 seconds I had to convince John that she in fact was his baby.”
One of Elway's fondest memories is from a post-Super Bowl win. The family was expected to ride in a fire truck for a parade through downtown Denver, even though Jordan was sick with strep throat. Here she was in the middle of a laudatory parade in the Elways’ honor, but in the back of her mind was her sick daughter. She recalls, “We laid coats in the truck to let her have a place to sleep. We were clueless as to how surreal the feelings would be. It was wild fun, and we were so proud to be part of it.
“I loved having my family together to share this. The kids were just overwhelmed, especially when the crowds were shouting their names," she says.
A focus on her spiritual side
Now divorced, Elway devotes her life to Christianity — the invaluable essence of her existence. Always a devout Christian, she now travels to speaking engagements relaying her story. "It's important for me to share my testimonial of why Jesus is so important in my life," she says with conviction.
In keeping with the spirit of Christianity, she serves as a Young Life hostess, providing a safe and welcoming environment for teenagers. For the past two years, Elway has opened her home every Monday night to 50 to 60 kids for pizza, sharing and socializing. "We've been involved with Young Life for 10 or 12 years, and my kids have really enjoyed it," she says.
Ultimately, it is when Elway reflects on love, faith and family that we get a glimpse into the core happiness in her life. Her dignified demeanor and warm, gracious personality expose a depth of character not often seen in a woman of her prominence.