Steve Wilkinson: Tennis and Life

Posted on August 20th, 2010 by

by Hanna Schutte ’11

Tommy Valentini '02 and Steve Wilkinson. (Photo by Hanna Schutte '11)

For the past 40 years at Gustavus, the name “Wilkinson” has been synonymous with “tennis.” Steve Wilkinson that is.

Wilkinson’s achieved the status of winningest coach in men’s tennis collegiate history with his team’s overall record of 929-279 (.768) and a Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) mark of 334-1 (.997). He is also the founder of the Tennis and Life Camps (TLC)—the largest tennis camp in one location in the country.

But it isn’t just the trophies on the wall or the incredible statistics that define Wilkinson—in fact they are merely a small part of what makes up this remarkable campus figure. Talk to anyone who’s spent at least 10 minutes with him, and you’ll see how no article could ever convey the impact or the presence he’s had on the lives of generations of Gusties.

Dedication to the school’s core values, international education, and teaching students to make the most of both their time at Gustavus and their lives outside of school makes up the core of Wilkinson’s Gustavus experience. Arriving at Gustavus as a religion professor in 1970, Wilkinson was asked during his interview if he would be willing to voluntarily coach the tennis team.

Keeping with his hallmark positive attitude, Wilkinson took the extra challenge in stride. For seven years, he taught religion courses and was the volunteer head tennis coach. While most know Wilkinson for his time on the court, he also made his mark in the academic arena. “When I taught a course in World Religion, I found a place in Japan with which we could partner to form Gustavus’s Japanese studies program. In the first two years of the program, we sent 42 students to Japan to study. I feel that a commitment to international education is an important ingredient,” says Wilkinson.

On the court, Wilkinson helped the team maintain a winning record every year he coached. The team achieved 36 MIAC Championship titles and 92 All-American honors. One of his players, MIAC champ Tommy Valentini ’02, is now head men’s tennis coach. Wilkinson says, “I feel very good retiring, and we have a perfect replacement in Tommy Valentini.”

Valentini feels honored to be taking over. “The men’s tennis team is a family, and the opportunity to be the next head coach is a dream come true,” he says. “To take over for Steve, well, he’s been like a father to me for half of my life, and to lead the program is incredible. We all grew up under his leadership, and that’s the reason I came back.”

A sense of family and unity within the tennis program has flourished under Wilkinson’s guidance, with alumni maintaining a strong connection to the program. “The tennis team is really like a family—and once you graduate, you are still a part of the tennis family. Many alumni are still active in the program—they come back once a year for our fundraising gala to play,” says Wilkinson. “We try to keep alive the history and tradition and produce a sense of family.”

Even a diagnosis of kidney cancer cannot slow down Wilkinson. “The first thing he said when he found out his diagnosis was ‘I’ve found a way to live the Serenity Prayer in a whole new way.’ He is no victim, but just a person that lives with it—he simply sees it as what he has been dealt,” says Neal Hagberg ’81, musician, assistant director of TLC, and friend of Wilkinson.

Hagberg also speaks about how he feels Wilkinson has accomplished his high level of success. “He is perhaps the single most focused individual I have ever met in my life, and I would say also one of the greatest visionaries in terms of how he believes this world can operate in a way that is better for everyone,” says Hagberg.

A participant in the 2010 Tennis and Life Camps. (Photo by Hanna Schutte '11)

One of the most defining Gustavus Wilkinson legacies is Tennis and Life. Throughout the summer months on the hill, it is a familiar sight to witness people of all ages walking toward the Swanson Tennis Center equipped with their rackets. With approximately 1,700 participants each summer, this is one important program that has a huge impact on the Gustavus campus. “We have a unique relationship with the College,” says Wilkinson. Many students have discovered Gustavus through Tennis and Life—even those that did not necessarily continue their tennis playing once they arrived on the hill for an undergraduate education.

Even someone who has no tennis experience can feel inspired to pick up a racket by just walking through the TLC courts. Constant positive feedback to participants, fun skits about teamwork and attitude, and rackets bedecked with smiley faces lend an atmosphere of support, sportsmanship, and respect.

“The specifics are what make this camp unique,” says Hagberg. “We have a lot of individualized attention. We have all the staff members greet the campers when they arrive and we carry in their luggage for them. We learn everyone’s names, and sit with them at meals. We put on variety shows, and hold the door open when campers come in from practice. We write thank-you notes, notes about why campers are important, and at the end, carry out the luggage.” The camp also has morning reflection time; a way for campers to consider what brings them together.

Why the personalization? “We do it because every camper is important,” continues Hagberg. “We want to do what we can to make them experience that. I’m very proud that TLC does that.”

But it isn’t just the details of this camp that make it unique. The founding story behind it is inspirational and distinctive. Steve Wilkinson tells the story: “There was a Gustavus student by the name of Karen Gibbs. (She is the only student at Gustavus to have a building named after her—Gibbs Residential Hall.) She was the number one player her first year. Then she got cancer, and she lost part of her right arm. Instead of giving up, she learned to play with her left arm, and at our game against U of M, she won her match in #3 doubles. Then she lost 50 pounds and her hair, and had shoulder surgery, but she still kept a positive attitude. She was always so positive—she made the choice to be a good sport. She died between her junior and senior year—1977, which was the first year of the Tennis and Life Camps.

“Every camper hears the story of Karen, and she is an exemplary model of the values we are trying to put forward. The Serenity Prayer also brings this to focus. There is a distinction to be made between what we can control and what we cannot control . . . it requires courage, but it is possible. Often people lack the wisdom to know the difference between things they can and cannot change. They get hung up on grades instead of learning the aspects within their control. It is the same with a tennis game. If you get discouraged, you lose the ability to do things you have the power to do.”

A birds-eye view of the Tennis and Life Camps in full swing. (Photo by Hanna Schutte '11)

With a name like Tennis and Life, participants know there is more to this overnight camp than just athletics. Wilkinson explains the Life portion of the camp: “We’ve been able to give new meaning to the three crowns Gustavus symbol. The first crown symbolizes that you have the choice to be positive, no matter what the situation. You should focus on the things that are in your control, and let go of the things that are not in your control. Such as when you compete, whether you win or not isn’t in your control, just as your final grade isn’t in your control—what you can have control over is your attitude.

“The second crown is commitment to give your full effort. Don’t just blow off a course, but give it your all—regardless of the grade you will receive. You don’t quit—even when you are down 6-0, 5-0 in a match.

“The third crown is good sportsmanship—we are always looking to find ways to affirm that. That’s why I teach sports ethics. It combines my interest in religion with sports—a meaningful combination. If anything gets communicated at the camp, we hope it is the combination of ethics with life, and the teaching of life lessons—which is why it is called Tennis and Life.”

It is impossible to know just how many people Steve Wilkinson has impacted, but it is clear that he has changed the world for the better. “How do you describe it . . . he’s been a coach and teacher and mentor and parent in a lot of ways and a really, really, dear friend. It’s been a life-changing experience to be around him every day, learning his values and watching him live them,” says Valentini.

“He’s like a combination of a mentor, friend, teacher, and in some ways a father. I have gathered so much, and if I have any wisdom in my life, it’s due to Steve,” says Hagberg. “He was one of the first to support my music career. I’m grateful I get to be here working with Steve. Every moment I get to spend with him I value. I doubt there is a sharper tennis mind in the world—the guy is a guru. He simplifies things to the core so it’s accessible to people.”

“We help students share their gifts through more than just tennis,” says Wilkinson. “A lot of people spend too much time just making money, and not focusing on their values. Gustavus is a place that connects actions with values, just as Tennis and Life is a place that connects life with values.”

“I think it’s remarkable what Steve’s been able to do,” says Valentini. “He had a strong vision, and he went after it. He believed in it, and made it a reality. Despite setbacks, he’s been able to stay true to who he is and what TLC is and what he’s created. To be a part of all of this is indescribable—when you see the look on kids’ faces, you can get a good sense of what this means to their lives. Steve is an example of what it means to live a life of service, and to give meaning to your life by doing that.”



  1. Jessie Doig says:

    Really great article Hanna! I loved how you delved into TLC and how Wilk was a crucial influence on really making the “LIFE” part of the camp such a special element to what TLC at Gustavus offers to young tennis players.

    I got a chance to meet Wilk this last winter and what you say about him as a person in this article really rings true to who he is and what he stands for. It was nice to learn even more about him.

  2. Brenda Stuhr says:

    Would you please email detailed information about Tennis/Life camp for this summer 2011.
    Ages etc.
    I would greatly appreciate it.