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Mom. 38, Goes From League to DII Varsity

April 16, 2015 09:32 AM

Reprinted by permission from the Hickory Daily Record

By JORDAN ANDERS janders@hickoryrecord.com

LelaSparksThompsonmugshotLela Sparks Thompson. Photo: Lenior-Rhyne

HICKORY, N.C. – Millions of college students across the country juggle their studies with partaking in athletics every year.

Lenoir-Rhyne University women’s tennis player Lela Sparks Thompson has done the same the last two years … with a slight twist.

She’s doing it about 20 years later than most.

Thompson is a 38-year-old graduate student pursuing her MBA in business. She’s married and has four children.

But she’s also spent this spring amassing a 12-8 record (8-3 in South Atlantic Conference play) as the regular No. 4 singles competitor for the Bears, who finish up their season today with a nonconference match at Western Carolina.

“Oh, my gosh, it’s been more fun than I could ever imagine,” Thompson said. “I love the girls, I love the team, I love the camaraderie. It’s exhilarating, honestly.”

Tennis isn’t something new to Thompson, a 1994 Hickory High graduate. She picked up the game at age 8, and was a member of the Red Tornadoes’ 1993 state championship team.

After high school, Thompson turned the page on tennis, passing up an opportunity to play at Roanoke (Va.) College to attend North Carolina.

But when she and her family moved back to Hickory in 2002, the sport came calling again, and a chance encounter with former Bears player Kate Meiners brought Thompson to LRU.

“I wound up against (Meiners) in a USTA (United States Tennis Association) league, and I won,” Thompson said. “She said, ‘You should play for LR,’ and I said, ‘What?’

“At that point, I was 34 or 35, maybe. But then I thought about it, and I had always wanted to go back to school, and I just wasn’t sure when the timing would be right. … so she kind of put that idea in my head.”

Within the NCAA’s 10-semester eligibility rule, Thompson had two semesters of eligibility left. She met with LRU athletic director Neill McGeachey and then-LRU tennis coach, the late Bobby McKee, and McKee invited her to join the team.

She didn’t partake in any fall activities the last two years in order to save her two semesters of eligibility. She went 8-12 last spring (2-9 in the SAC), playing predominantly at the No. 3 spot.

This year, though, Thompson turned her game around. She enters today’s finale against Western Carolina with the most singles wins on the squad, and her 8-3 singles record in league play led the Bears.

thompson_lela_sparks_bh_david__scearce_hickory_recordThompson competes for the Lenior-Rhyne varsity. Photo: David Scearce/Hickory Daily Record

“She’s been fantastic for us this year,” LRU head coach Scott Handback said. “She’s extremely coachable, and she knows her strengths and weaknesses.

“She’s a very smart tennis player and she’s very strong at the net, which has made her an extremely good doubles player for us. She just knows how to do the things she can do well.”

Watching Thompson interact with her teammates during a match doesn’t automatically reveal an age difference.

They smile, they yell, they cheer and celebrate, and Thompson – whom her teammates call ‘Mama Bear’ – blends in as just one of the girls.

“She’s just so personable and outgoing, and really kind-hearted,” teammate Maggie Brown said. “I think she obviously has a motherly way about her since she is a mom, but she also has that best-friend quality.

“It’s just been really cool to see her following her dream, and it does give us all hope that maybe when we’re 38 or 39, we’ll get to do something we didn’t get to do the first time around.”

Though Thompson has found her fit on the team, she said she didn’t tell her teammates right away just how much older she was.

But as they came to know each other, all that has done is become another way she’s endeared herself to the other girls on the team.

“We’ve just got a really good relationship, like a big sister-type relationship,” said Thompson, who also had a 9-9 doubles record entering today with four different partners. “They come to me with stuff and I feel like I can listen from an outside perspective and have that little bit of wisdom from being a little bit older.

“But they keep me silly and make me laugh … gosh, they make me laugh so hard. I adore every one of them.”

Those aren’t the only relationships that have been key to making the situation work.

Living her dream of playing college tennis has taken a lot of effort, both on the part of Thompson and those around her.

Thompson attends night classes at LRU, and it’s constant juggling act to fit everything in on a daily basis. But her husband L.T. and four children – Stirling, 12; Mather, 10; Colby, 8; and Henry, 6 – are frequent supporters at matches, cheering her on.

“I owe a lot of it to my family,” she said. “My husband is amazing. He’s really sacrificed a lot to let me do this. He’s awesome.

“I really couldn’t do it without them, and without the support of them out here cheering me on. They love coming to the matches.”

Thompson loves the matches, too, though there will be no more for her after today.

She still has a year to go before she completes her MBA, and now she has the experience of finally playing college tennis to go along with that.

“For me, to kind of fulfill a dream that I didn’t get to do when I didn’t go to (Roanoke College), it’s been awesome,” she said. “You only live once, and I want to teach my kids you can do anything.

“I’ve definitely played my heart out. This is something that I will never, ever forget.”

 

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