Orisen Swett Marden once said, “All men who have achieved great things have been great dreamers.” When I was a young girl, I had a dream of becoming a successful tennis professional. I used to see myself walking up to the net after winning match point against Steffi Graff no less, and shaking her hand. I used to practice my “thank you” speeches in my bathroom mirror. I had it all planned out. I dreamt of becoming the most famous Jamaican athlete ever born. Unfortunately, Usain Bolt beat me to the punch, but that’s a different story.
It was because of this dream that I would wake up every morning at 5.30 a.m. and drive to our tennis club about 55 min. away to take a private tennis lesson before going to school. Because of this dream, I was picked up before school was out and taken to another practice session. Because of this dream, my parents built a tennis court in our backyard and hired a coach from Croatia to come and live with us as the availability of coaching in Jamaica was limited. Because of this dream, I would run the hills around my neighborhood, fearfully dodging my neighbors’ unchained dogs. Because of this dream, I had absolutely no social life. I would go to school, then straight home into this little bubble my parents had created and then have to do the same thing day after day. At times, I felt as if I was missing out, but it was okay because I had a dream. I was working towards something.
Because of this dream, I tolerated the repetitive verbal instructions that felt like abuse from my emotionless Croatian coach. If I heard (please insert European accent here), “Use your hips Avanna,” “Turn your shoulder Avanna,” or “Move your feet Avanna” (my name is Alanna by the way) one more time, I thought I would just burst.
Because of this dream, even though I started playing at the late age of 12, I believed if I worked hard enough I could catch up with my adversaries. Even though Jennifer Capriati was winning the U.S Open at the age of 14, it was okay because I had a dream and I was told, “If you believe you will achieve.” Thanks, dad!
Because of this dream, we realized that I had to play many tournaments to hone my skills. Being from a small island with very few female tennis players meant I had to travel to other countries to compete. I first went to the near by islands, such as the Dominican Republic, St.Lucia, Aruba and then unto Europe.
I got to see many countries I had only heard about, such as Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark and, of course, Croatia! Places I would never have experienced if I did not play tennis .I was staying in hotels, playing tennis (the sport I loved), winning matches and I almost forgot, there were boys there too! I had a dream, but I was still a teenage girl! I had to stay focused on the dream, so no boys were allowed (please ignore the moment of weakness).
“This is the life,” I thought to myself. If this was only International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournaments, imagine when I turned pro how much better it was going to be. Because of this dream, I ended up missing so much school that my teachers told me that I could not be both, an athlete and a student, one had to give. And that one was tennis. Well of course no one or any school was going to stand in the way of my dream. I decided to go to a tennis academy in the United States where tennis came first and academics second.
I was leaving my small island behind where, in my mind, they did not sufficiently appreciate athletic talent and moving to what I saw as the big leagues where people took tennis seriously.
So at the age of 15, I moved to America and I got a job. My job was to play tennis. I went to school from 8.00 a.m. to noon, but school seemed a whole lot easier in America. I loved the multiple choice and short answer questions. In Jamaica, it seemed every test had to be answered in essay form.
My job started at 1.30 p.m., and I had a five-hour shift. At this job, there were many other employees just like myself. Employees who fought to stand out, who worked hard to make me look like I was not working hard and they were competing for the same promotion. My fellow employees wanted to build their resume just as I did. It was at this time I realized I was no longer in my little bubble. (“Dorothy was no longer in Kansas!”) It was a bubble certainly, but this bubble had kids just like me with the same exact dream. They had my dream and they were willing to work just as hard as me. Their parents supported them just as much as mine did and they played just as many tournaments as I did.
This is when the dream started to develop little doubts. It is the first time in my tennis journey that I started to wonder if I would actually see Steffi on the other side of the net. I struggled to find a coach that I felt believed in me or who could relate to me. Do not get me wrong, I was still doing well. I was one of the top girls at the academy and yet I had to fight to get recognition. But it was okay because I had a dream and I knew I had to fight for what I wanted. I was winning local tournaments, but not being able to play sectionals or nationals meant I had to travel far and wide to get points. Each year, I qualified for the Orange Bowl Tennis Tournament, but I started to get these things called, “dream crushers” also known as injuries. I thought I was indestructible. I was young and fit, why was my body failing me? This was not part of the dream.
I was turning 17 and I had already graduated from high school because my previous essay focused education in Jamaica allowed me to skip a grade when I migrated to the big leagues. That academic-focused nation did me some good after all. I decided to take the permitted year break after high school and see how well I did on the pro circuit.
I was still at the academy, but now without school, my workday had now increased to seven hours including my fitness regimen. I must say that training did not seem as easy as it had before. I sometimes dreaded it and even exaggerated my aches and pains to get out of it because I simply did not feel like hitting another tennis ball for another consecutive hour. Why was this happening to me? Was it because my dream was fading? Or, was I no longer the big fish in the small pond, but instead, a part of a massive school of fish, chasing this big killer hook, disguised as a delicious and scrumptious worm!
I started receiving college scholarship offers. I went on a few visits just for the fun of it, but I could still see the faint visions of my dream. Very few girls went to college back then and became successful pros. I was already pushing the envelope by not turning pro by the age of 15, but I turned them all down. I still believed I could make it.
In December, I decided to play my last Orange Bowl tournament before going on the pro circuit. I did reasonably well and garnered a lot of attention and interest. Although I did not win the tournament or get far in the main draw, it was still a huge milestone for me. I finally understood that tennis is a journey and that it has its ups and downs, its trials and tribulations but those moments of victory are worth the hard work, just as in life.
To conclude my story, after the Orange Bowl, I was offered a full scholarship to the University of Miami and after many a difficult conversation with my parents, I ended up enrolling and arrived at the Coral Gables’ campus, one that I had never visited, two weeks later. I rushed into this decision because I felt the opportunity would not present itself again.
You may ask what happened to the dream I have been talking about this whole time?
I made my decision based on three things:
1. I could see myself relating to the coach who recruited me for the University of Miami. It would be the first time I’d experience having a female coach and the idea of learning from a woman who had accomplished and experienced all the things I had or dreamed of doing was a huge factor in my decision. Who better to coach a girl than a girl?
2. My dad told me that a dream never dies. He said that if I had the same desire after college, nothing could stop me. Steffi would have to wait a few more years to play me that’s all! The only difference being that I’d have an education to fall back on afterwards.
3. Although I appreciated the wonderful tennis tradition coupled with a great athletic program, I’d have to say that the overriding reason why I chose the University of Miami was because it was close to home.
They say, “Home is where the heart is,” and yes, this is so true, but home is also where the dream ignites. Through my journey away from home, I have learned that one should appreciate what you have because sometimes, the next best thing might not be necessarily better.
My dream allowed me to get an education from a private university. It afforded me the opportunity to see the world. I was able to meet interesting and diverse people and to follow the road less travelled. Although I did not get to shake Steffi Graf’s hand across that net or say that “thank you” speech, I feel that I can say, without reservation, that a dream pursued with determination and discipline equals success. I believe the most important lesson I learned overall was that you can be both an athlete and a student.
Swett Marden said, “Great achievers are great dreamers.”
What is your dream?