Likas | Close-knit siblings thriving on separate stages

Likas | Close-knit siblings thriving on separate stages

CHAMPAIGN — Sanjiv Chopra's face lights up when he discusses his two children.

He and his wife Archana have plenty of reason to smile when chatting about their son Varun and daughter Mira. Not only are the two strong in their academics and willing to engage just about anyone in conversation, but they also are on a path to becoming Division I siblings.

Varun is preparing for his sophomore season with Illinois golf coach Mike Small's program, while Mira is gearing up for her second year with Champaign Central volleyball and receiving various D-I looks.

"That was never the plan for exposing them to sports," said Sanjiv, who originally hails from India and moved his family to Champaign in 2003. "They found their calling, and they work hard."

Sanjiv's last thought is an understatement. Varun teed off in two golf tournaments this week, with the local Twin City event set to conclude today. He's also qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championship, which takes place Aug. 13-19 at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California.

Mira, meanwhile, has been competing in Tulsa, Okla., over the same timeframe with the USA Volleyball High Performance program.

Varun is a Big Ten Conference standout, and Mira has taken looks at Florida State, Northwestern, Southern California and Michigan, among other institutions.

And yet, the two have very different viewpoints on how they came to this point in their athletic careers.

"Early on in high school ... when I started getting some interest from colleges, I started to realize maybe I could play at a university," Varun said. "That is when I started to get into it."

"When I was younger, I never thought I'd be big in sports," Mira countered. "I never imagined myself playing a sport in college or anything."

***

Neither Varun nor Mira is following the sports path of their father. During his years in India, Sanjiv was a connoisseur of soccer and cricket.

He and Archana didn't let that past determine the future for Varun and Mira.

"When my kids were born, sports was a big part (of their lives)," Sanjiv said. "They pretty much tried everything, from T-ball to soccer to basketball to swimming. Even ice skating, and that was disastrous."

While Varun and Mira focus on specific sports now, others permeated their routines well beyond their earliest years.

Varun suited up in basketball for Uni High in addition to golf before graduating in 2017.

"As I got older, I started playing (golf) with different people," Varun said. "There were some good players in the local community I played a lot with, so I looked up to them and got better."

Mira only recently gave up hoops as well, in addition to going through stints with acrobatics, dance and even golf.

"Volleyball was not one of my first sports," Mira said. "I knew I was tall for my age, and I knew tall girls played volleyball. As the level of volleyball starts going up, it gets more intense and I started to like it a lot better."

Watching his kids go through very different athletic experiences, Sanjiv takes equally different approaches to the pair of ventures.

"I might start playing more, golf-wise," Sanjiv said. "At volleyball, I'm a quiet spectator. I'm learning more about the sport."

***

Something else that separates Varun and Mira is their high school of choice.

Varun attended Uni High, a private institution of 241 youngsters that counted a boys' golf team of two during Varun's later seasons.

"I don't really regret it," Varun said. "It was a good experience. I met a lot of different types of people at Uni that I probably wouldn't have met other places."

Mira knew well before ninth grade she wished to attend Champaign Central, a public environment counting 1,277 youths and various sports programs with too many participants to count on one hand.

"I wanted to go to a bigger high school where there's big sports, like football," Mira said. "I wanted to be around more people in my grade so I can meet all kinds of people."

Sanjiv, who was schooled in India before undertaking further education at Iowa State and Northwestern, noted he and Archana care deeply about the role academics play in their kids' lives.

But the parents also want Varun and Mira to do what would make them happiest.

"We wanted them to kind of do both (academics and athletics) at a high level," Sanjiv said. "For long-term success, people have to find their own way. You can only massage and manage it for so long."

***

Now, Varun and Mira are at separate stages when it comes to sports.

Varun is readying to take on a bigger role with Small's golf program, which frequently has been an NCAA championship contender in recent campaigns.

"It's been fun being able to play for your university," said Varun, who took to three different courses as an individual in his freshman season. "Representing something more than just yourself is more important."

As such, colleges courting Varun is a thing of the past. The opposite is true for Mira, and Varun wanted to make sure his younger sister was making the most of her opportunities.

"He's kind of the one that pushes me to go to these camps and try out," Mira said. "At first, I played club at Prime Time (in Champaign). He's the one that made me try out for Illini Elite. If you want to go to the next level, you need to do this."

That last point is most important to reaching the D-I level, in Sanjiv's mind.

The senior director of Oracle — an information technology company — as well as an entrepreneur-in-residence and visiting lecturer with Illinois' College of Engineering, Sanjiv is a believer of the concept hard work pays off in the end.

"The process is the same (for Varun and Mira)," Sanjiv said. "You keep getting better even though you've got to keep exposing yourself to different coaching styles. Benchmark yourself against good players. It's the steps along the way they need to focus on."

***

All the while — as Varun and Mira put more time into their sports, as Sanjiv continues his multi-faceted work and as Archana focuses on her job as a psychiatrist — the Chopras stay a close-knit bunch.

Varun will watch Mira's summer matches on his phone or computer. Sanjiv and Archana take in all the golf and volleyball they possibly can.

"It's been nice to have them with me along the way and just be there if I need anything," Varun said. "They keep me on the right track if I get too high or too low."

"My parents are up to travel wherever," Mira added. "All these camps and club volleyball, it's super expensive. They're so supportive of it and taking me everywhere."

As for Sanjiv and Archana, they enjoy watching the fruits of their kids' labor and how they have allowed Varun and Mira to soar in the realms of golf and volleyball.

"As a parent, you want to see your own kids flourish and get better," Sanjiv said. "That's been a godsend. You don't want to take those things for granted."

Preps coordinator Colin Likas writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com. or on Twitter at clikasNG.

Name recognition

Varun and Mira Chopra aren't the only brother-sister combo to have athletic success at the prep level. Here are three other notable ones:

J, Julie and Cory Leman

All three attended Champaign Central, with J (Class of 2003) moving on to Illinois and the NFL to continue his football career. Julie (Class of 2000) earned News-Gazette All-Area volleyball Player of the Year status in 1999 and then played at Olivet Nazarene, getting inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 2017. Cory (Class of 2007) was a standout linebacker at Eastern Illinois.

Trent and Chantal Meacham

Trent, a 2004 Centennial graduate, played basketball at Illinois and then overseas as a pro. Chantal, a 2013 Centennial grad, won The N-G's 2011 girls' soccer Player of the Year before playing basketball at Wheaton College.

Doug and Lexi Wallen

Lexi, a multi-sport star for St. Thomas More, earned News-Gazette Female Athlete of the Year honors in 2015 and now plays volleyball at Illinois State. Doug played basketball at STM and Champaign Central, setting C-U's all-time scoring record (broken by Tim Finke this year). He now plays at Illinois Wesleyan.

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