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Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009

Vanecek’s Tennis Passion Helps Propel Her to National Level

By Lyn Hunter

Vanecek and JanVanecek, left, with her longtime doubles partner Jan at the National Championship in Tuscon, AZ

As a kid, Cathy (Sam) Vanecek, wasn’t just into sports, she excelled. As a swimmer, she won gold and bronze medals at the California Junior Olympics, and as a skater, performed in ice shows.

Later in life, she applied her athletic skills and strong desire to win towards a new sport: tennis. And again, she has risen to the top, working her way through local, district, sectional, and state competitions, earning spots in, not one, but three national tournaments over the last five years.

“I had dabbled in tennis in high school and college and I think that planted the seed,” explains Vanecek, an 18-year Lab veteran who is the executive assistant to Accelerator and Fusion Research Division Director Steve Gourlay. “But it wasn’t until later in life, after my kids grew up, that I really got back into it.”

She started playing socially, but it soon became clear to her hitting partners that she had more to offer than just occasional stints on the court.

“My tennis buddies said I should join a competitive league, so I found a team in Walnut Creek,” Vanecek says. “That was about 15 years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. It’s my life.”

Why is she so passionate? The bond that develops between members on a team is quite strong, explains Vanecek. She describes Jan, her doubles partner of 11 years, as being “like a sister.”

“I love my girls, we’ve become great friends over the years. They’re like family,” Vanecek says. “We all seem to have similar ideals and values. The quality and caliber of these women is just amazing.”

This camaraderie may explain why Vanecek and her teams have been so successful. Earlier this month, she made her third trek to the United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Championship, competing in the 3.0 seniors (age 50 plus) doubles division. Hers was one of only 17 teams from thousands all over the country that qualified to participate in the competition, which took place in Tuscon, AZ.

And it was a tough battle. Vanecek used her crafty cross-court drop shot, down-the-line forehand and slice backhand, as well as excellent communication with her partner, to eke out victories. Every match but one required a tiebreak to determine the winner, she said. They made it to the final four, but eventually lost to the team that took home the title, coming in fourth.

“I’m so proud of our accomplishment,” sayd Vanecek. “Less than .001 percent of competitive tennis players make it to Nationals.”

While still riding high from her team’s success, Vanecek is also grappling with being promoted to the 3.5 playing level (an automatic adjustment after making it to Nationals) and acclimating to a new team (her former team must virtually disband, another USTA requirement).

“This new level is definitely more physical and aggressive,” says Vanecek, “but I’m up to the task.”

Given her dedication to the sport and fighting spirit, it probably won’t take long for Vanecek to excel once more.

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