By
Dateline NBC
updated 11/21/2004 5:52:07 PM ET 2004-11-21T22:52:07

What's in a name? Everything, when it spells the McCaughey septuplets. They are four brothers and three sisters who made their splash into the world, within six minutes of each other and left their footprints on history. Their expansive home movies are part of our collective memory now, from mother Bobbi's high-risk pregnancy to father Kenny's relief on the day the babies were delivered 10 weeks premature.

Seven years later, the world record-breakers are setting their own personal bests and finding new ways to fiddle around.

They may not like to practice their instruments, but this string section already sounds promising. When not in concert, the septuplets are finding their own rhythm. They went to public school last year, after being home schooled in their kitchen. In kindergarten, they reached new milestones in their development and their individual strengths and abilities emerged.

Divided into separate classrooms, all seven also made their own new friends. Now television pros, they even shared advice with classmates on how to act naturally in front of a camera. But the media-savvy kids, whom we've followed since birth, didn't hold back on our annual summer visit.

This year, we brought the McCaugheys to "White Water University," an amusement park in Iowa that offered steep learning curves and high-octane fun. Nathan was thrilled to trade one set of wheels for another. Cerebral palsy has impaired his motor skills, but he led the field on the racetrack. In fact, this gentleman would not stop his engine. At every pit stop, Nathan wanted to step on the gas. Finally, after umpteen laps, he tested his own horsepower. Some of his muscles are stiff and spastic, so he needs leg braces for support.

At home, he practices without a spotter and routinely slides down the stairs. At school, he sometimes uses crutches, although he prefers his silver racer, which he maneuvers like a NASCAR champion.

However by midsummer, Nathan's parents were considering serious surgery that could enable him to park his wheels permanently and walk unassisted for the first time. And it would mean a big change for the entire McCaughey household. Bobbi would have to move Minnesota to help Nathan through six long weeks of intensive therapy -- leaving seven kids, two cats and a husband to fend for themselves. It’s a tough decision, and one they would have to make sooner than they expected...

If Nathan took the checkered flag, madcap Kenny claimed the Green Jacket. The septuplet born first and silliest of the bunch, he chased the ball with signature gusto. He may not be the next Tiger Woods, but he scored an A-plus for effort on the green and in the classroom.

In kindergarten, Kenny's reading skills were delayed, but that didn't squash his enthusiasm. With extra help in reading and math, he's expected to be on the same page as other first-graders by the end of this year. 

But at White Water University, higher learning was a little more fluid. The zig-zag slides were a breeze compared to the straight shot called "The Cannonball."

More timid than some of her siblings, Natalie clung to the edge. But as other kids took the plunge, this little lady flirted with fear and with a lifeguard who promised to watch out for her. But don't be deceived. She may be sensitive and shy, but she's got true grit. Take kindergarten, where Natalie was a slow starter. By June, she no longer needed tutoring. In fact, she had moved to the head of the class.

So what happened on "cannonball run"? After 10 minutes of white-knuckled tension, Natalie let loose. One splashdown and she was hooked, racing to the top of the slide like an Olympic luger going for gold. Afterwards, she kicked back with her new beau.

For Kelsey, the fun-loving tomboy, fear is rarely a factor. So when this makeshift ocean began to roar, her reaction was surprising. While some of us caught the mechanical waves, Kelsey dashed to shore. Life so far has been smooth sailing for Kelsey compared with some of her sisters and brothers. The septuplets were born 10 weeks premature. But after making it through the critical first months, Kelsey hasn't faced any significant medical or developmental issues. Always polite, she can't help being honest – even about how she doesn’t like going to school every day.

But she sure liked "The Lazy River." Here no one got cold feet. Joel, in particular, found his comfort zone. He's still a mama's boy, and when he's not tied to her, he moves to his own beat. And at school, with special help, he is making progress with his writing skills. A loner by nature, Joel doesn't like to be messed with.

You can count on Brandon to be the first to try everything. He was in top form at the water park, inevitably, living up to his reputation as a climber. He's more action, than talk. A quiet and steady achiever, he has always had a knack for putting a twist on the ordinary, taking seven minutes to devour his ice cream.

By midday at the water park, the McCaugheys still had plenty of lung power, but fatigue started to dampen the fun. It had been a long, gleeful day for Alexis who, like her brother Nathan, has cerebral palsy. In her case, it has weakened, not stiffened, her muscles. The radical surgery that could help Nathan isn't an option for her. The disorder has also affected her cognitive development, but it hasn't limited her ambition.

Ann Curry: "What are you going to get to do when you're older?"

Alexis: "I get to be the boss."

Curry: "Who are you going to be the boss of?"

Alexis: "My brothers and sisters."

Curry: "And what are you going to tell them to do?"

Alexis: "Go in bed."

While outsiders may only see what Alexis struggles to do, those who know her are amazed at how much she has achieved. This year, her special education teacher is Valerie McCaughey, otherwise known as grandma. She is also tutoring Kenny, Nathan and Joel.

For all that the septuplets are learning, celebrity is still an abstract concept -- except to their older sister Mikayla who, at eight, not only gets it, she sees the perks.

Curry: "What's your favorite thing about having these guys as your brothers and sisters?"

Mikayla: "If I didn't have them, I wouldn't be famous."

But aside from the occasional TV report or magazine cover, fame has not influenced the McCaughey's daily routine. In fact, Mikayla has a newfound appreciation for the ordinary, too. After four years of home schooling, she persuaded her parents to let her try public school.

Mikayla: "They were like, okay, 'You really want to go?' And I'm like, 'yes, I really want to go.'"

So far, she is giving fourth grade high marks. If Mikayla has matured, so has her dad. You might say that Kenny McCaughey's father-knows-best attitude has mellowed.

Kenny: "The bottom line is her education and if she can get a better education in public school, then that's fine, too."

Curry: "When I first met you were you like this my way or the highway. What happened to that guy?"

Kenny: "Just a little more flexible, seeing that maybe God's will, isn't always your will."

During our summer visit, Kenny joined us at a roller-skating rink after his workday at a small factory had ended. And by evening, the kids had caught a second wind. After seven years of parenting septuplets, it seems Kenny had gotten a second wind, too.

Curry: "Can I say, you look happier?"

Kenny: "Oh, I am a little."

Curry: "More rested?"

Kenny: "Thanks, yeah. I feel a lot better. I mean we're starting into the years when the kids can do more now. And they know more what's expected of them. We're kind of sort reaping the fruits of our labor."

Diaper days may be over, but years of financial pressure lie ahead. Of course they have benefited from the generous gifts showered on the family for the first few years, from their house and car to free clothes and groceries. Now they're on their own, supported primarily by Kenny's modest salary, Bobbi's thriftiness and eight sets of hands.

Bobbi: "They've gotten to be such good helpers, you know, and we can dole out the daily chores."

Curry: "Do they still load the dishwasher?"

Bobbi: "Yep."

Curry: "Come on!"

The children began pitching in at the young age of four. Gradually, they have been assigned more duties, though there's some debate about who does what.

Amidst the action at the roller rink, Nathan once again demonstrated his ability to beat the odds. He would need this winning attitude when his parents decided to follow doctors’ advice and have him undergo spinal surgery that could dramatically improve his daily life.

Bobbi: "The doctors had said the sooner, the better for getting it done because the bigger he gets the more difficult rehabilitation would be."

And so, Bobbi and Kenny checked Nathan into Gillette Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. 

Kenny: "It’s kind of scary and must be scary for him, but I think the outcome of this will be worth more than the risk."

Nathan was already anxious to know when he could return home. First he was fitted for new support braces that he would wear during his six week recovery. Then, after a good luck kiss, Daddy carried his boy into the operating room. Under general anesthesia, he would undergo a four-hour procedure called Selective Dorsal Rhizotomy. Through an incision in the lower back, neurosurgeons identify nerve roots in the spine that cause stiffness in certain muscles.

Bobbi: "When they isolate ones that are causing abnormal movement, then they clip partway through and so it will virtually eliminate the spasticity that he has in his legs."

After hourly updates, Bobbi and Kenny were relieved to hear good news from neurosurgeon, Dr. Mary Beth Dunn, that he was in recovering and doing well. It was a promising start to an uncertain future. Nathan recently began intensive therapy, with the hope that someday soon, he will walk completely on his own.

Bobbi: "It's a long road of physical therapy both while we're there and once we get home so you know it could be a year before we see the final effects from the surgery."

The weekend before the surgery, the septuplets celebrated their birthday a little early, so Nathan wouldn't miss the party. For Bobbi and Kenny McCaughey, seven tiny babies, once identified by letters in the womb, have grown into seven feisty first-graders, with their own plans for the future.

Baby A: Kenny, the aspiring rescue hero:

Curry: "Why do you want to be a fireman, Kenny?"

Kenny: "Because I want to squirt out the fire."

Curry: "And what's good about that that?"

Kenny: "To be safe."

Baby B: Alexis, the would-be boss of the seven dwarfs:

Curry: "And what do you want to be when you grown up?"

Alexis: "Snow White."

Curry: "Would you kiss a prince?"

Alexis "No."

Curry: "Ew."

Alexis: "Yuck."

Baby C: Natalie, who is studying to become:

Natalie: "A doctor."

Curry: "Why do you want to be a doctor?"

Natalie: "To take care of people when they're hurt."

Baby D: Kelsey, who wanted to be the tooth fairy until she lost her first pearly white.

Kelsey: "My mom was the tooth fairy."

Curry: "Your mother was the tooth fairy? Wait a minute."

Kelsey: "I got money."

Curry: "Well, where's the real tooth fairy."

Kelsey: "I don't know. There's no such thing."

Baby E: Nathan, who imagines transforming.

Curry: "Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?"

Nathan: "Spiderman"

Curry: "And what are you going to do if you're Spiderman?"

Nathan: "Swing on a web."

Baby F: Brandon, who pledges allegiance to Uncle Sam.

Curry: "I know you like the Army."

Brandon: "I know"

Curry: "If you could be in the Army, what would you do in the Army?"

Brandon: "I don't know."

Curry: "Would you wear a uniform?"

Brandon: "Yeah."

Baby G: Joel, who reaches for the stars.

Curry: "Have you thought about what you're going to do when you grow up?"

Joel: "Be a space man

Curry: "What would you see out there?"

Joel: "A planet."

So many hopes, so many dreams. But for their parents, watching seven turn seven is gift enough for this year. Happy Birthday, and may all your wishes come true.

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