Raising the Pope women

Story and cover art by Isabelle Zyhailo

This story is part of the March 2022 issue of The Daily Universe Magazine and magazine show (below).

Do you remember the iconic hype anthem “We are the Titans” in the movie “Remember the Titans?” Now take this spin on it:

“We are the Pope girls. The mighty, mighty Pope girls”

This is one of the family anthems for BYU men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope.

Welcome to the showcase of the Pope women

The Pope family consists of two parents, Mark and Lee Anne, and four daughters: Ella (21) who plays basketball at Ohio University, Avery (18) who plays tennis at BYU, Layla (16) who dances and Shay (13) who plays volleyball. 

This family of powerhouse women thrives on supporting one another and following their dreams. 

Pope Daughters. Left to Right: Ella, Layla, Avery, Shay. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

Their mother, Lee Anne, has been around athletics her whole life. Her father was Lynn Archibald, who coached at multiple universities, including BYU. 

She has memories of moving often as a child and locking arm-in-arm with her two brothers walking into their new schools.

Family is everything and sports are important to the Pope family because of the many deep and close relationships they have made over the years. 

Athletics also develop character and teach life lessons, they said.

“It’s such a vehicle for hard work, for sacrifice, teamwork, discipline, overcoming challenges, persevering and ending up victorious, and sometimes not,” Lee Anne said. “Sometimes you lose and it’s important that our focus has always been how hard they work and what they are willing to put into it.” 

“My girls have found confidence through their chosen sport,” Lee Anne said. “I think it is important for women that they are getting their confidence and self-worth in something that they have control over.”

That confidence is there even on a bad day. They go to the gym and shoot, or go to the dance studio, and when they leave they feel better. 

Avery Pope plays tennis at BYU. (BYU Photo)

“She’s instilled this confidence in all of us because she is a pretty confident person,” Avery, a freshman at BYU, said. “I think that is just important, especially being girls, knowing who we are, knowing what we stand for and being proud of ourselves.”

Lee Anne exposed her daughters to as many sports and activities as possible when they were young. All four took dance lessons, played soccer, basketball and volleyball and three of them played tennis.

“One by one they kind of gravitated toward something they really loved,” Lee Anne said. “The beauty is that they gravitated towards something that they wanted to work hard on and so far that they have been willing to sacrifice for and they all have sacrificed for what they’ve done.”

They have all sacrificed free time and weekends with friends to accomplish their goals. 

Ella and Avery both play collegiate sports at the Division I level. Balancing sports, school and social life is practically impossible for them, but they have accepted the challenge nonetheless.

“Our parents just taught us to find out what we love to do,” Ella, a freshman at Ohio University said. “You go full speed. You get to fit it all in to the best of your ability.”

Ella Pope plays in a basketball game against Richmond in 2021. (Madison Bryant/Ohio University Athletics)

“Something that we have talked about as a family, and in general with athletes, is that there are so many times we make excuses with things that they can’t control, which takes all the power away from your children,” Lee Anne said.

They take a different approach to excellence and take control where they can. That puts the ball in the Pope women’s court.

“If everyone’s blaming the coach for not playing them, it’s like what we tell our girls, ‘It’s not your coach’s job to play you, it’s your job to get the coach to play you,'” Lee Anne said. “I think that empowers your child and I know it empowers our daughters that they have control over their career. When you start blaming referees or politics, you take the power away from your child. We just don’t see it that way.”

Part tribe, part wolf pack

Lee Anne and Mark Pope have cultivated this family of women to love, to be each other’s cheerleaders and chase their dreams. They celebrate women in athletics. 

“I never had sisters,” Lee Anne said. “I only had brothers and to watch my girls’ connection and support for each other, and anything to talk about from clothes to boys to their different activities. I think it is fantastic, and when Ella was home this weekend, all four girls were home and we sat around in our kitchen till 2 a.m. every night. Mark and I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Being in a family of all women is fun and they love that they can relate with each other. The girls said if they had a brother it would ruin the whole thing. 

“I would say my sisters are my best friends, hands down,” Avery said. “Nobody comes close.”

Mark often gets comments about how having all daughters would be hard and some express their condolences, thinking it is a disadvantage. 

“I think something special for me and my sisters is that my dad has never let a comment like that slide,” Avery said.

“Never. He is disgusted,” Lee Anne said.

“He will always be like, ‘I am the luckiest man in the world to have all girls,'” Avery said.

The four Pope daughters. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

Families naturally have busy schedules, and often find it hard to spend time with everyone, but they are in heaven when they do.

“I think we take advantage when we can be all together, especially on Sundays, and we just laugh,” Layla said. 

Going to each other’s games or dance performances is a priority and can be a sacrifice at times, but that is what they do for each other.

“It’s all for one and one for all and we think that is super important,” Lee Anne said. “We are super involved, and we share. We know what Avery has going on, we know that Shay is trying to compete for a spot, and we know what our family is accomplishing.”

It is celebrating together that creates the memories and closeness. They have a strong love as they have each other’s backs, stand up for each other and are there through thick and thin.

Layla had spinal surgery in April 2020. She said she was really nervous about it because she didn’t know how mobile she would be afterward. 

“It was super scary because when she went into surgery we didn’t know if she would be able to dance the way she had been dancing.” Lee Anne said. “She’s had to make adjustments but it has been awesome.”

Layla was preparing for a competition in Las Vegas recently and the family commented on watching her practice after recovering from surgery.

“There were so many tricks in it that none of us could do, except for Layla,” Lee Anne said.” She began to say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I thought it was going to be too challenging for her back, but when she was on the stage, she nailed every single one of them. It really was something that she didn’t think she would be able to do.”

The sisters said it’s so fun being there for each other and when Layla nailed her dance recital they all jumped to cheer for her. 

“We are part tribe, part wolf pack,” Ella said, “It’s a little bit tighter than a normal family.”

If someone were to take a peek inside their family dynamic, they would quickly recognize that perfection is not the goal. 

“They would see a group of imperfect people that really, really love each other and are all trying to do the best,” Ella said. “When someone fails, we all stop and pick each other up.”

Sports are a big part of their lives, but they do not define the culture of love and strength that Lee Anne and Mark have created.

“My parents could not care less of what we chose to do with our lives,” Ella said. “I think all my sisters will tell you that. They make that super clear again and again. They say ‘We don’t care what you do. We care that you love it and that you try as hard as you can.’”

The Pope family. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

Ella, Avery, Layla and Shay know that college might be the end of their sports careers. They choose to see each other for who they are, not from the sports they are in.

“It’s our dream, not theirs,” Avery said of her parents. “They lead us a lot by example. My dad has never told me to be on the court for more hours, but I have watched how hard my dad and mom work and that’s how I learned how to work.”

She said the independence her mom has given her was the best gift. 

“It got to a point with Avery where I said that it should be more important to you than it is to me,” Lee Ann said. 

That is what the Pope family is all about. 

“We have all fallen into the thing we love doing,” Ella said. “It’s not doing sports that is important as much as it’s important to find what you love and to chase what you love. I think that’s important to our family.”

You’ll find them supporting each other, and if you’re lucky enough to see it, on Sunday nights, they’ll be talking at 2 a.m. laughing at who knows what. That’s just what the Popes do. The mighty, mighty Pope family.

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