Never in my life did I think that I would unironically give myself the label of athlete.
Growing up, my brother and I played our comfortable roles: he was the sporty one, I was the brainy one. Yet all of that changed during my very first week of Mills when I went up to a brightly colored booth and asked the coaches tabling if there was a club tennis team on-campus. From that point on, my experience at Mills has been greatly impacted by athletics—overwhelmingly for the better.
I played three years of high school tennis but never considered myself particularly athletic or viewed it as anything more than a fun extracurricular, and never even dreamed that I could be on an official collegiate team. Yet Mills gives athletes the unique opportunity as a Division III school with a small student population to grow their skills along with the team instead of coming into college at their peak.
In other words, I didn’t have to be very good as long as I showed promise. Now, in my fifth semester of playing for Mills tennis and as co-captain of the team, I am at a level of athletic skill that I never thought I would achieve—which is a testament to the coaches in the athletic department.
Being on a team has impacted not only my athletic abilities, but my physical and mental health as well. I freely admit that that if not for being obligated to, I would rarely exercise. Thanks to tennis I am on the court up to 20 hours a week between practices and games. Those hours are also some of the rare times when my mind is not cluttered with a multitude of responsibilities and worries and thoughts; the only thing I am focused on is getting the ball to the other side of the court. It is a huge reprieve from the stress of schoolwork, a break that I miss as soon as the season is over.
However, the role of teammate and athlete is a large commitment that only adds to the many responsibilities a college student must juggle. My free time is significantly limited for the majority of the semester, and many of my weekends are dedicated to traveling and competing. Daily practices can also leave me feeling drained, making a pile of homework I must face that evening go from appearing daunting to seeming insurmountable. Regular compromises are made as a student athlete.
Despite all this, there is almost nothing that would make me give up my student athlete experience. One of the aspects of being on the team that I’m most appreciative of is the travel opportunities; how else could I ever be handed a six day, almost all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii? Thanks to tennis, I’ve also had opportunities to travel to Milwaukee, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles. But beyond serving as an exciting way to travel around the country, these leave lasting memories and act as bonding experiences that make the team feel like family.
What I believe will have the most permanent impact is my connection to the friends I have made through my team. I’ve become close with so many people that I never would have otherwise crossed paths with, especially people below and above my graduating class. I’ve seen so many friendships blossom on the team and continue off the courts, still blooming even after teammates have graduated and moved all the way across the country. I’ve been able to connect with so many different and diverse people, and also have tennis to thank for one of my closest friends who I cannot imagine Mills without.
A semester at Mills with no tennis would feel strangely empty. I may laugh every time I see the Stormy mascot saunter out, but I genuinely have a sense of Cyclone pride thanks to the athletics department. Being a part of the program has given me the greatest sense of community and belonging on this campus. I never could have guessed that a causal inquiry into a sport I thought I would never seriously play again would prove so fateful for the rest of my time at Mills, but I’m forever grateful that I asked.