When Stacey Venker graduated from the in 1987, she had dreams to work in sports management or apparel. To work for Adidas or Prince.
But after a summer of teaching and coaching tennis, Venker couldn’t talk herself into moving to Atlanta, much less traveling to professional tournaments around the world. And 24 years later, after she’s coached tennis with people from 5 years old to 84, she’s comfortable in her life’s work.
Venker is the director of the Tennis For Life program at in Athens and Herman C. Michael Park in Oconee County. The venues combine for 1,000 tennis players each year in its programs that range from child and adult beginners, to state champions and super seniors.
“I do believe deep down it was my calling,” Venker said. “I have always felt very deep within that I would not teach somewhere else. If I would leave Bishop Park, I would leave teaching. Luckily, I’ve been able to hold to that inner truth.”
In the beginning, a friend told Venker about two new courts that were built in Oconee County, and after an encouraging talk with a director there, she built that program enough to talk Bishop Park into letting her coach. It began with 50 participants, grew to about 300 in 1995 and has more than tripled since.
Originally, Venker said she gave herself five years, and then figured she’d find something else. Then she removed that “block” and replaced it with a goal of 10 years to find something else. But that something else never came.
“I really love the challenge of trying to make it better every year,” she said. “The other real truth is I feel real fortunate my body has held up, and the local recreation departments have continued to support me.”
She’s assisted by four full-time employees and 12 part-time instructors.
Janet Darvill, the administrative assistant at Bishop Park, has worked for Tennis for Life for five years, but began lessons with Venker 15 years ago. Darvill’s also taught lessons part-time. She said the success of the program is directly related to Venker.
“It’s her personality, her energy,” Darvill said. “She’s very energetic on the court. She’s very energetic about ideas, things to do in the future. She’s always thinking of things. She loves the game of tennis, she loves being on the court. I think she feeds off the energy as well.”
Venker said it’s because there wasn’t someone to take the lead and organize programs and tournaments.
“You get a group of eight or 10 women, and get them on a team,” Venker said. “And once they’re on a team, they’re yours for a long time.”
In 1987, public tennis in this community was a sliver of what it is today - there was only one team.
Today, Tennis For Life counts 48 teams that range in groups from senior men, to business women, to women’s day league, to combinations of men and women.
Those in the leagues say Venker is a reason for the program’s success because she finds teams for new players.
“It’s available to any age or skill,” said Theresa Fromm, who has been a part of the program for 12 years.
Fromm, Karen Wells and Sonja Pridgen are in the 4.0 women’s division, one of the most advanced in the program. The U.S. Tennis Association has a numbered system for various playing levels, from 1.5, which is limited experience, to 7.0, a world-class player.
Everyone involved in the program points to the sport’s ability to be suitable for all stages of life. The program offers a social aspect, along with exercise and the challenge of competition.
“We love to go to state when we win our tournament,” said Pridgen, who has been a part of Tennis For Life for six years.
Wells added that Tennis For Life offers an affordable public tennis option outside of Jennings Mill and .
And the growth of public and community tennis around Athens could continue thanks to the proposed new 12-court facility next to . When those are completed, Athens will have 23 public tennis courts.
“I’m very humbled about it,” Venker said. “I don’t take anything for granted.”