By Julie Samrick
Caroline can’t remember a time in her childhood when she didn’t play tennis, and not just leisurely hitting the ball around, but strenuous workouts to perfect her natural gift for the sport. She often played up to 5 hours a day as a young girl growing up in a suburb of Cincinnati, believing that the pressure to play by her mother and to be the best is what made her void of any love for it.
Caroline is the 11th of 12 children, born to traditional Catholic parents, who themselves grew up in the Depression era. They valued hard work and they got just that from their children. All 12 of them earned college degrees, for one. Yet when their children were young Caroline’s parents chose tennis as the family’s sport, a way to keep the kids active and self-disciplined; they even built a tennis court in their backyard.
Why tennis? It was the 1970s and tennis reigned supreme in the United States. Little girls everywhere wanted to be Chris Evert and all eyes were transfixed on a young man who first burst on the scene with a passion and a powerful swing that was unparalleled- it was John McEnroe.
8 of the 12 siblings in her family continued to play tennis, but when little Caroline came up the ranks it was undeniable that she was truly gifted and she excelled at the sport. When she was 8 she played in her first competitive tournament. At 10, Caroline was on the Junior Circuit competing at the national level. At 14, she was ranked the 9th best youth player in the nation. At 20 she competed at the U.S. Open.
If she wasn’t at school, young Caroline was on the court. By high school, when others went to Friday night football games and dances, Caroline was traveling to compete internationally. “I loved the perks and notoriety and I definitely loved the travel,” says Caroline. As a teen she traveled to Japan and South Africa. She represented the United States at Jr. Wimbledon and at the Jr. French Open. At one time later in her career, Caroline even bested Martina Navratilova in a match. “The lows were low and the highs were high,” she says of the time.
Yet Caroline didn’t love tennis- it felt more like a job.
“There was always pressure and an emphasis on winning,” says Caroline. “Try your hardest,” is what she always heard from her mother and coaches. She desperately wanted someone, anyone, to talk to her about fun, sportsmanship, or to even help foster friendships among the players.
“Life on the pro tour was a lonely time in my life,” says Caroline. After a full ride scholarship to USC in the 1980s and five years on the professional circuit, she gave up the sport at the age of 28 in hopes of a more normal life. She does say, however, that her time in college was when she enjoyed tennis the most- she relished the camaraderie she had with the other girls on the USC tennis team; it was the first time she had the opportunity to develop true friendships.
“I feel really bad for young people today who are in the spotlight. With the media, endorsements and so much more money on the line for young athletes, there must be an insane amount of pressure on them- much more than I had,” she says.
On a smaller scale, Caroline feels for the kids who need to pick “their sport” sometimes as young as 1st grade. “It’s crazy- if they don’t try out for the select or competitive team, their opportunities to continue to play can already be over at such a young age,” she says.
Today Caroline is a married mother of two elementary school aged children. She is still fit, yet tennis isn’t part of her routine anymore. “I only miss tennis for the exercise,” she says.
She tries to keep her kids balanced with their extracurricular activities and sports and she also makes sure they have plenty of time to just play and be with friends, too. Her own childhood experience has instinctively made her critical of herself and her kids, but she tries really hard to combat it.
All of those trophies and awards she earned during her illustrious career? “They’re still at my mother’s house,” she says. In a way, they always belonged to her mother anyway.
“One time I said I wanted to try volleyball and my mom put all of my tennis clothes in the cedar chest, visibly upset. I left her a note, taking it all back, and we never talked about it again,” she said, quick to defend her mother as doing the best she could.
Caroline’s story is a reminder of what many of us parents do. It may not be tennis, but it’s common that we see a skill or a talent in our children (or maybe it’s our own talent or passion) and we push them in that direction.
“Being pressured took all the fun away- and as good as I was, I still didn’t try my hardest,” Caroline says now, looking back. “Maybe I would’ve liked it more if I had 2 hours on the court instead of 5, I don’t know,” she said.
Caroline’s advice to other parents? “If you see a talent in your kids, encourage them, but also make sure they actually want to pursue it too.”
Where do our children’s true passions lie? It is our job to expose them to different experiences to find out, but when they do reveal their preferences to us, as parents we need to stand back, watch and listen to them.
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