Steamboat Springs It was just another day at Raleigh-Egypt High School near Memphis, Tennessee, as Loretta Conway made her way past the high school tennis courts. She didn’t know it at the time, but one simple question was about to change her life forever.
“I walked by high school tennis practice. It looked like fun, so I asked the coach if I could play,” she recalled.
The freshman acknowledged she had no experience with the game, didn’t know the rules and had never served a ball in a match, let alone a high school tournament. But the coach looked her in the eyes, saw a desire to play the game and told her to go grab a racquet.
That moment set the tone for Conway, who has spent most of her life promoting tennis to anyone who has the desire to hit a tennis ball. She knows it only takes a single moment for a person to fall in love with the game, and that love can last a lifetime. These days, she is running the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs along with her husband, Bill. But inspiring that love remains a passion.
Her journey through the world of tennis has brought her a steady paycheck and lots of opportunities to share the game with others. It took her to Florida, where she was a teaching professional and got to meet then-Gov. Jeb Bush when she was heading up a junior program that inspired students to work harder in school through tennis. She also held the position of community tennis coordinator for the USTA's NorCal section, which included several programs in high-crime neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco.
Conway said her coach's decision to let her play more than 40 years ago has changed her life for the better, and because of that, she has spent her career attempting to inspire others to love the game.
She has used her position to teach the affluent, but she is more proud of having taken the game to the freqently troubled youth in the Oakland and San Francisco areas. She is also proud she helped promote the game inside the thick, concrete walls of San Quentin Prison in California.
"I was scared, at first, and I wasn’t going to go,” she said of her reaction when her boss presented the idea. “The inmates were in there for all kinds of reasons. They could have been dangerous, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.”
The prison had invited the employees at the USTA to come as part of a yearly visit. The inmates wanted the USTA to see what they were doing at San Quentin and how the tennis program could change even the most hardened criminals.
Though boss assured her the visit was perfectly safe, she had made up her mind she would not go, but at the last minute, she remembered how tennis had changed her life, and as a result, she changed her mind.
She understood the inmates had made mistakes, but they were playing the game for the same reasons she did.
Inside the walls she found plenty of 4.0 and 4.5 players who may have loved the game more than she did. They never complained about playing on a cracked and uneven court with a makeshift net. The players would compete in singles and doubles matches, and the inmates waiting their turns would shag balls, since the court had no fence.
“These men were paying for their crimes inside prison,” Conway said. “I never forgot that they were inmates, but I didn’t really fear for my safety after that first visit.”
However, the inmates had a hidden reason for inviting the USTA to the prison that first day. Sure, they wanted the professionals, and the administrators, to come see how the program was influencing the prisoners, but they wanted something else, as well.
The court was in desperate need of improvements, and the inmates reasoned that, with the USTA’s backing, they might be able to accomplish the task of building a new one. At the end of the first visit, they approached Conway and her boss and asked them if they had any money for the project.
Conway accepted the challenge and began to raise money outside the prison walls. That money eventually helped build a new and improved court for the inmates. The new court also had a fence, so the prisoners no longer had shag balls. It had a real net, and posts to hold the net in place.
Conway continued to visit the prison after the court was completed and noticed the inmates playing tennis were less inclined to gather in segregated groups, less involved with the gang scene and more outgoing. They were not angels, she said, but they were working to improve their lives — and for many of them, that improvement was fueled by tennis
Conway was convinced that the game was having a positive impact, and she saw it every time she walked through the secure area. Her visits eventually ended, and she acknowledged she no longer has contact with the inmates.
She is also the first to admit that not everybody saw her efforts as positive. She was given an award by the prison for her community involvement, but outside the walls, people in the tennis community wanted to know why she was wasting time and money on the program.
She said she was able to put the criticism in perspective and views what she did in San Quentin as part of a lifelong goal of promoting the game to anyone, and everyone, who has a desire to learn.
She earned the Volunteer of the Year award from San Quentin in 2005, and her efforts were further recognized in February, when the USPTA Intermountain Division awarded her the 2016 Diversity Award at the organization's convention in Denver.
She said she is still pursuing ways to reach out to future tennis players and ignite their love for the game — the same thing her first coach did for her back in high school. Sure, these days, she prefers to do it outside the looming walls of a prison, but she believes there are still opportunities to reach communities and players who may not know they love the game — even in a small town like Steamboat Springs.
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966