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38-year-old goes back to college to play tennis

Have you ever dreamed of playing college tennis? Good news, it might not be too late for you.

Lela Thompson, a 38-year-old graduate student at Lenoir-Rhyne University, grew up playing tennis and had her sights set on competing collegiately before she finished high school. But life doesn’t always work out exactly as you envision it when you’re 18 years old.

Thompson decided against playing tennis in college, despite receiving scholarship offers. She elected to attend the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and tennis took a backseat for a while.

Two decades later, with a husband and four children by her side, Thompson decided she’d give the collegiate athlete route another try.

The NCAA’s 10-semester eligibility rule allowed Thompson two semesters to play for the Lenoir-Rhyne Bears. She joined the team in the fall of 2014, and Thompson was the oldest player on the roster by 13 years. It didn’t make a difference to anyone.

“It didn’t take very long to get used to the girls. The first couple practices I wondered if it was going to be weird. I was more worried about them being uncomfortable. They just accepted me from the get-go,” Thompson said. “The girls saw me more as a friend/big sister. We got along really well. They’d come to me with boy troubles. They’d ask for my opinion of things a lot. I’m pretty easy to get along with so it worked out and we had a blast.”

Thompson waited to join the team until her youngest child began kindergarten. She was able to work out her schedule to be able to attend classes, play for Lenoir-Rhyne and take care of her family. While everyone went through an adjustment period, her family was always supportive of her path.

“The first year my family would tell me all I did was play tennis. This year they couldn’t get enough. They loved coming out there to watch,” Thompson said. “My little boy kept asking why I couldn’t keep playing. The kids loved cheering for us, and the girls would always have fun and play with them. It was like one big family.”

Thompson discovered the idea of playing as a graduate student during one of her USTA League matches. She beat Kate Meiners, a former Bears player, in a 4.5 singles match, and Meiners suggested Thompson look into Lenoir-Rhyne’s team.

The Bears ultimately offered Thompson a full scholarship for her two semesters of eligibility. She mostly played at the No. 3 spot on the lineup. Lenoir-Rhyne nearly clinched a spot in the conference tournament this year.

“We were one spot from making the conference tournament. It just didn’t go our way this season. We ended up No. 7 in the conference, and only the top six go,” Thompson said. “But it was an awesome experience. I’m actually really sad it’s over. My hip regrets it but other than that I’m in pretty good shape. My game has definitely improved. Tennis is about repetition, and getting to play every day is huge.”

Thompson still has six classes left to complete to receive her MBA from Lenoir-Rhyne. She’ll continue to be an avid league player like always, and she’ll see even more tennis now that her children and husband are getting involved with the sport as well.

What is she going to do after graduation?

“I’ve got some things in my head I’ve been toying around with, but I’m not exactly sure what the next stage of life holds for me. I know we’ll be playing plenty of tennis.”