A 60-Something College Tennis Champ The women's tennis team at Grand Canyon University in Arizona has an unusual player — a 60-year-old named Sheila Johnson. She played for three years at Arizona State in the '60s, but still had one year of eligibility left.
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A 60-Something College Tennis Champ

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A 60-Something College Tennis Champ

A 60-Something College Tennis Champ

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We're going to go to a more genteel sport but stay with women athletes. The NCAA tennis regional tournaments are under way soon. Among the teams hoping to qualify, the Grand Canyon Antelopes. This is a Division II women's team from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. And one player there especially is getting a lot of attention. She is 60 years old. Her name is Sheila Johnson. From member station KJZZ, Rene Gutel reports.

RENE GUTEL: Sheila Johnson didn't get the warmest welcome when she joined the tennis team at Grand Canyon University. When the coach introduced the 60-year-old woman to the other players, some of them, like 18-year-old Stephanie Halderman, didn't even try to hide their disappointment.

Ms. STEPHANIE HALDERMAN (Grand Canyon Antelopes): She walked out on the court. It was like, what are you doing? You're not going to play with us. I was like, how old are you?

GUTEL: It was a rocky start. Halderman was going to be Sheila's doubles partner. Johnson is the oldest college tennis player in the country.

(Soundbite of tennis match)

Ms. SHEILA JOHNSON (Tennis Team, Grand Canyon University): It's kind of surprising because, you know, I knew I was old, but I never realized, I guess, that I'd be the oldest person.

GUTEL: Last December, Johnson was nine years into a comfortable retirement, but then she got a call from her private coach, Greg Prudhomme, who had just accepted the position of women's tennis coach at Grand Canyon. He was one player short and invited her to join the team. In order to qualify, she had to sign up for a full load of classes. So the retired high-school-math teacher went back to school.

(Soundbite of cheerleading)

Ms. JOHNSON: I just took my last exam yesterday, so I'm kind of done now, but yes, I had to take 12 hours.

GUTEL: This past week the Grand Canyon Antelopes played the Biola Eagles, from La Mirada, California. The temperature is in the upper 80s, and before the match starts, the players huddle for a pre-game pep-talk.

Mr. GREG PRUDHOMME (Tennis Coach): Drink lots of water. It's warm and if you guys are feeling hot or warm, remember, we live here. Hang tough. Who's going to give us the count?

Unidentified Woman: I'll do it. Hey, Canyon, say one, two, three.

TEAM: (Shouting) Canyon!

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of tennis match)

GUTEL: It's easy to spot Sheila Johnson on the court here, because she's the only one wearing shorts and a t-shirt. All of her other team-mates are wearing little tennis dresses that are very, very, very short. But Sheila is much more modestly dressed.

Ms. JOHNSON: I do see a lot of women that have come up to me and said, you know, this is really great, I wish I could do it, or I want to do it. And give it to the young girls, and stuff like that. So, I guess I am an inspiration in a way, but that wasn't the goal.

GUTEL: Coach Greg Prudhomme, the one who recruited Johnson, says he knew right away, with her skill and experience, she'd be an asset. And he wasn't mistaken. He says not only has Johnson been one of the strongest players, she's gotten along with everyone.

Mr. PRUDHOMME: That's probably been the best part of this whole year, is how the young five freshmen that we have, the 18, 19-year-olds have welcomed her. There's no age anymore. They just look at her as a teammate.

GUTEL: But it didn't start out that way. I was talking to Stephanie. She said when you first came by she was a little bit miffed.

Mr. PRUDHOMME: Well, the good news, it was only minutes until she saw her hit the ball. As soon as she hit one ball, then any doubt that coach was crazy for having her out here was out the window.

GUTEL: The team has done well this season, and Johnson's doubles' partner, Stephanie Halderman, has come a long way, now viewing her teammate as an asset.

Ms. HALDERMAN: It grows on you. She's a good player so we get along really well. We do really well in doubles. So, it's a lot better than before.

GUTEL: And Sheila Johnson says she's learned a lot from her teammates. She says on the court, they're all tennis players, and she doesn't even think about the age difference. But off the court, the generation gap occasionally rears its head.

Ms. JOHNSON: They're still trying to teach me to text. I got a text message today. I don't even know how to reply to those, but I'm able to read them.

GUTEL: This season is winding down, and based on the rules of college tennis, Johnson won't be eligible to play again next year. She says she's looking forward to going back to her quiet retirement.

Ms. JOHNSON: You know, nine years of retirement, I kind of needed a little change, a little boost, and this was really good for me. Now I can rest for another nine years.

GUTEL: For NPR News, I'm Rene Gutel in Phoenix, Arizona.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And there's more coming in a moment on Day to Day.

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