November 4, 2009, Vienna, VA
Karen Bybee healed from the death of her first child by throwing herself into the planning of the 1994 Soccer World Cup event. Since then, Karen has developed a career in international sports management, and has been involved with eight Olympic Games, four Soccer World Cups, and numerous other international sports events.
I graduated from Brigham Young University with clear expectations: I would have marketable skills; I would get a job; I would get married, and I would have children. I believed that I could “have it all,” but I also understood that I couldn’t have it all at the same time.
After majoring in Public Relations, I got a job in Washington D.C. working on Capitol Hill. I married my husband Jeff when I was a few months short of my twenty-ninth birthday. As I later anticipated the birth of our first child, I resigned my job and pursued an opportunity to do some part time consulting. Then the unthinkable happened: our baby died.
This was in 1989, and prenatal technology was not as widely used as it is today. We didn’t know there were complications until our baby was born. Our daughter, Kara, was a “Trisomy 18,” which meant she had an extra eighteenth chromosome, resulting in a congenital heart defect and severe neurological challenges. She was sustained on life support for five days until the tests came back and confirmed that she had no chance of sustainable life. We were also told by the doctors that this was a genetic problem and we would probably never have our own children. We were devastated. I spiraled into a dark depression that I felt I couldn’t escape. I felt so fragile and vulnerable–like a piece of glass that would shatter if someone touched it.
It was at this low point in my life that I was offered the opportunity to join the 1994 World Cup Organizing Committee. The United States had recently been awarded the rights to host the 1994 World Cup [the most important world-wide soccer tournament] and a long-time friend had just been named as the head of the organizing committee. He asked me if I would come on board for the next five years to help organize and stage the 1994 tournament. I was the third person hired for the committee.
Did you have any experience in sports management at that time?
My brothers and I were always involved with sports growing up, and I had some experience planning events with my job, but I had no direct sports management experience. I knew that soccer was the passion of the world, even though at the time it was not very popular in this country. I certainly didn’t know that the World Cup competition covered 30 days, 24 teams and 9 cities…but I knew it was a big deal.
The World Cup is held every four years in non-Olympic years, and the 1990 World Cup was being held in Italy. Our committee recognized the need to learn everything possible from the upcoming 1990 World Cup before we had to host the event ourselves. The president of the organizing committee knew that I had been a missionary in Italy, and that I spoke Italian. Because of my Italian language skills learned in the mission, my initial primary responsibility was to act as a liaison with the Italian organizing committee.
Actually, I had never planned to go on a mission. As I neared completion of my junior year in college, I was contemplating my options after graduation and praying for guidance on the direction I should take. I kept getting the impression that I should serve a mission, even though this wasn’t one of the options I was considering. My mission was an incredible experience and changed my life in many ways, but I could never have anticipated it would also change my career trajectory. My mission experience gave me my entry into the 1990 World Cup, where I made international contacts and received “on the job” training in international sports.
Working for the World Cup organizing committee allowed me to heal from the death of our daughter. The job enabled me to build my confidence, to pour my energy into something productive, and to move forward. It gave me a purpose. In many ways I felt like I gave birth to that organizing committee. We started with nothing and had to build everything. It was a rare opportunity for me to start at the very beginning of a project and see it all the way through to fruition. It was immensely satisfying to see the 1994 World Cup become the huge international event that it was.
You now have three children, three sons. Are they your natural born children?
Yes. After our daughter Kara died, we went through a lot of testing and were ultimately told that our daughter’s genetic problems were just a fluke. We then knew that we had a good chance of having our own children. However, it was a long time before I felt I could take that step again. Our loss had been so devastating; I needed time to heal. Eventually, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The baby didn’t have a name for five days, nor did we set up the nursery. I couldn’t emotionally go there until I was sure he was going to stay with us. After we passed that five day mark when Kara had died, I figured he was going to be around, so Christopher got a name and we set up the nursery and moved forward. Two years later I had another son, Cameron. Later, our third son, Matthew, was born.
How did you work child care when you were working?
Everyone in the World Cup organization was very supportive. My colleagues knew my history and knew what this meant for me to have a family. They were thrilled when I had my children. My colleagues were always flexible in helping me figure out how to make job and family work.
We had a wonderful nanny, a live-in Latter-day Saint girl from Idaho. She came when Christopher was nine months old, and except for a brief period, she stayed with us for seven years. She was part of our family. I took her with me when I travelled so that the kids could come along. Now she’s married in the temple and has six children of her own and I tell her, “I was raising you too, you know!”
It’s not easy to be a nanny and have the mother working in the home, but we worked very hard at making that relationship work. I often worked from my home office which can sometimes be difficult with children. My boys understood that if my office door was open they could come in and color and sit on my lap or whatever, but if mom’s door was closed, then I shouldn’t be disturbed. I also have my mother who lives 20 minutes from me, who has always been very willing to be involved with my family and has been a huge support to me over the years. My husband, Jeff, is phenomenal. He understands that I have this need to have something that is my own, that I am actually really happy when I am engaged in a project. We work together as a team. We are different in terms of personality and style, but our strengths complement each other and we each contribute what we can. We don’t have a big social life; our down time is spent with our kids and doing church and family things. I “won the lottery” in terms of finding a husband who is supportive of me.
Have you worked continuously since 1989 when you started planning the 1994 World Cup?
No. Upon the conclusion of the 1994 World Cup I worked from home for almost two years with a sports marketing firm and for the last 15+ years have worked on my own as an independent contractor. I was not interested in starting my own business, instead, I was more comfortable working my business contacts and seeing what opportunities came my way. (In this business, once you have carved out your “specialty” many people go from Olympic Games to World Cup, to Goodwill Games, etc. The same people in similar roles keep showing up over and over again.) I worked on various projects, often with long breaks in between (sometimes anywhere from 6 months to a year) when I was a full time stay-at-home mother.
How have you maintained your contacts over the years?
Even though some of my contacts are dwindling I feel my acquired skills will always be valuable. Unlike many working women, I am fortunate in that I am not the sole source for my mortgage payment. This has given me the flexibility to pick and choose those projects that work for me and my family. Every time I am offered an opportunity to work, my husband and I ask each other, “Is this something that works for our family?” I have stepped anyway from many professional opportunities because it wasn’t the right situation for us. I’ve worried that with gaps in my resume I might not be able to stay relevant in the industry, but I’m okay with that. I have no regrets that I’ve stepped out to spend more time with my family. If I never work again, I am okay knowing I have had 25 years of “once in a lifetime” experiences!
What do your sons think about your professional life?
I think they are proud of what I do. It helps that I have boys who are really interested in sports. Unlike some professions, my kids can really get into what I’m doing. I have always tried to negotiate that my children would be involved in the events I’m planning so organizers know up front my family would be coming. When the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic opportunity came up, my son, who was a junior in high school at the time said, “Mom, we will kill you if you don’t take this job!” He wanted to come to Canada for the Olympics! My children have had some terrific opportunities to travel the world, to learn about other countries and cultures, to meet interesting people, and to participate in my events.
What have you done to help your boys be supportive of women the way your husband is supportive of you?
My boys are very independent and don’t expect that mom does everything for them. We have tried to teach them to accept personal responsibility. They have been doing their own laundry from the time they were ten. They know how to fix meals and that allowance doesn’t get paid unless their rooms are clean. We’ve always done a job chart. They also see a wonderful example in their father who values my skills and aspirations as much as his own. My boys have been exposed to many strong, accomplished women and have seen them excel in many capacities. They have seen that women can fill many different roles. In a gospel context, we have tried to show them there are many ways you can be a righteous woman in the Church.
Did you always know as a child that you would pursue a professional path?
From my very earliest years, I never thought about my wedding or what my bridesmaids were going to wear; I wanted to see the world! I came from a very strong family, three brothers and parents who loved each other. My mother stayed home with us until my father lost his job and became ill, and then she went back to work. My mother became the financial provider for our family when I was about 15. It was a complete role reversal for my mother and father, but I always felt that my parents were equally yoked. My mother had always been involved in the church and serving others and volunteering in organizations. She took all of those skills and turned them into viable employment. I had a profound role model: I understood the need to prepare yourself to stand on your own because there are no guarantees in life.
Another element of my youth that profoundly shaped me was my work with the ASBYU Women’s Office in college at BYU. At that time, in 1978, there was a furor across the country with the Equal Rights Amendment, the International Women’s Year (IWY) and IWY women’s conferences were being held in every state across the country.
I was trying, in the context of this student government role, to mesh my personal feelings about being a modern woman with the demands of the gospel. I attended some of the national women’s conventions at that time and tried to be a voice representing BYU and the standards of the Church. But then I would come back to the campus and try to make some small progressive changes in our programs for women and education. So there I was, organizing “Bridal Fair” on campus, but also trying to help advocate classes for women on finance and communication in marriage. It was a frustrating time. I felt it was important for us as Mormon women to be voices for good in the world. I took to heart the statement of President Kimball that as women in the church, we needed to reflect righteousness and be articulate in our lives so that others would see us as “distinct and different–in happy ways–from the women of the world.” I always knew that regardless of whether I was working inside or outside the home, I wanted my life to reflect the light of the gospel.
Looking back, I absolutely see the Lord’s hand in the unfolding of my life. My work in sports event management has allowed me to work in a field I am passionate about and to raise a family that I cherish. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I’ve just tried to do the best I could to make the opportunities in my life work together.
At A Glance
Location: Vienna, VA
Marital status: Married 24 years
Children: Four (18, 16, 13, and one deceased)
Occupation: International Sports Consultant and mother
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University, BA 1981 in Public Relations
Languages Spoken at Home: English, occasional Italian
Favorite Hymn: “How Great Thou Art”
Current Church Calling: Recently released early morning Seminary teacher; now happily teaching 16-year-olds in Sunday School
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Photos used with permission.