Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sports and Our Identity: Thank you Zina Garrison

Every July, I head just 25 miles south of my home in San Francisco to watch the Bank of the West Tennis Classic at Stanford University. In fact, this event is the longest-running women-only professional tennis tournament in the world and the first stop of the US Open Series. The weather is great and the competition is even better. A walkway aligned with banners of past winners confirms my claim. Looking at some of the game's all times greats: Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert Serena and Venus, Monica Seles and Kim Clijsters made me wonder which one of today's competitors will we look back upon in 10, 20 or 50 years and say: Wow. I have a sneaky suspicion that the 2017 champion Madison Keys could be in the mix. And yet, before my imagination ran away from me, I paused at the banner of the two-time champion Zina Garrison. Much to my surprise, I saw a little bit of myself.
To wonder how that might be true is not an unfair question. Garrison is an African American professional tennis player from Houston, Texas. I remember her for her great athleticism, her strength, and her hustle. Hell yeah. She has not left my psyche because I know she is revered by my favorite female athlete—Serena Williams. I always want to know who my favorite athletes and coaches, saints and teachers, writers and musicians hold as their heroes. This fun fact made me appreciate both Zina and Serena that much more. But how might this image—this tribute to Zina Garrison teach me about myself? Look closely. 
Around her neck, Garrison is wearing a gold charm of a tennis racket. On one hand, her choice of jewelry strikes me as funny. Her fans already know who she is and what she does. But, on the other hand, it's not. We wear jewelry as a means of self-expression. Many Christians wear a cross and Jews wear a Star of David. Sure, a tennis player can and might wear a tennis racket—but most don't. So what gives? I would love to ask Ms. Garrison to hear her response. Until then, I can only answer from what I know about myself and what I saw in myself. I believe Zina Garrison wants people to know she is a tennis player who loves the game.

Tennis was my first love of in all of sports. I loved it so much that I too, wore tennis jewelry. Far beyond the tennis bracelet, I had the gold tennis racket charm. I carried a fuzzy tennis ball keychain. I wanted everyone to know that I was a tennis player, especially among my other students in my high school. Outside of school, I wanted the world to know that I played tennis at Carondelet. Tennis was an important part of my identity. The sport and its attributes—both good and bad—shaped me into who I am. My coaches, my teammates, and the pros taught me much more than how to compete. How they played, won and lost, trained and mentally prepared for the game shaped me in ways I appreciate even to this day.

As much as tennis shaped my emerging, adolescent self, so did another sport: running. My parents encouraged me to run in order to become a better tennis player, and they were right. They knew I was only interested doing whatever it took to get better at what I loved, but something unexpected happened along the way. I met success. I earned my varsity letter my freshman year as a 2-mile runner even though I didn't see myself as a runner (at this time). From my point of view, I didn't look like a runner. I knew that some of my teammates who ran cross country and track. They were the runners. I was the girl who ran. However, running also shaped me into who I am. My teammates, especially those seniors I ran beside mentored me; I looked up to them. In fact, I still remember a lot of what we shared...the stories we told...the races, the workouts, our coaches and so much more.
Golfers and Girls who Golf
I have reflected upon these two contrasting components of my identity because as I enter into my third season of coaching golf, I want to pay attention to the fact that I have a variety of athletes on my team. Many of the girls are golfers. They love golf and want to be known inside SI as golfers. Others are girls who play golf. The game is fun and challenging, but their aspirations with the sport are different. And, there are others who are emerging golfers...girls who might fall in love with the game...those who may play golf today and become golfers tomorrow. I hope they will love golf as much as I do.

When I first started running, I never could have anticipated how much I would love the sport. Though I ran varsity track for four years, I never could have predicted how running would become such a significant part of my identity in the years long after high school. 

I don't know if it's funny, or if it's sad, but I no longer play tennis or run. However, what I learned from both sports has stayed with me, forging part of my identity that I appreciate...and cherish. So, I've been wearing the Bank of the West baseball cap with a little pride. I still want a good looking pair of running shoes to keep me light on my feet. And, I will look at athletes through a different lens and trust they are getting exactly what they need and hopefully even more of what I can give.

Photo Credits
Zina G


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Jules! I still appreciate ALL that you taught me. Too little time in the Holy Land. Until the reunion...!!!

    2. Btw. Yesterday was the two year anniversary of my hole in one.