It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.
Like all professional tennis players, Gail Falkenberg travels to tournaments and chases ranking points. In her career, she’s performed well enough to earn a USTA national ranking inside No. 300. But what makes her stand out from her young opponents?
For starters, Falkenberg is self-taught. Her knees are not the best. Every once in a while, she serves underhanded. But perhaps most notably, she’s 69.
“So many times people say, ‘At a certain age you won’t improve,’” she said. “But you do! You can, you just have to practice. You have to have that drive.”
Falkenberg made news earlier this year when she won her first professional match since the late 1990s. It happened in Pelham, AL, in a qualifying match. A 6-0, 6-1 victory gave her a chance to play Taylor Townsend, once the No. 1 junior in the world. In that match, Falkenberg lost to Townsend at love. But it didn’t discourage her from pursing her dream.
“I’m getting faster and quicker, believe it or not,” Falkenberg said.
The truth is that Falkenberg doesn’t win often—it’s pretty common, in fact, for her to lose two sets in 12 games. But it doesn’t bother her. In late July, Falkenberg packed up her Honda CR-V for a two-day trip from Ocala, FL, where she lives and teaches tennis, to Austin, TX, for an ITF Pro Circuit tournament at the Polo Tennis Club.
Pro Circuit events pay a pittance—the draw is ranking points, not prize money. Falkenberg played her first match, in qualifying, against Stephanie Nauta, a 22-year-old who played tennis for the University of Virginia. Falkenberg gulped down two bagels, 6-0, 6-0. As usual, she accented the positive.
“I won lots of points, including many game points,” Falkenberg said. “She just raised her level at the right times with a big serve and return.”
Falkenberg is a veteran of the game. She played tennis at UCLA as a walk-on. After graduating, she didn’t hit a ball for a decade until catching the tennis bug again in the 1980s, and she started to win. In 1983, she won the national public parks tournament, playing against women and men. (She was the runner-up the following year.) Falkenberg turned pro and got her world ranking into the 300s, and even won a qualifying round at the 1988 Australian Open. By then, she was 40.
Four years ago, Falkenberg moved to Ocala. That’s where she made an immediate impact in her new tennis community. David Lillis, a 69-year-old retiree, remembers the day Falkenberg walked onto the court and asked him and his friends if she could play with them.
“She looked like the little old lady from Pasadena,” Lillis said. “We sort of snickered. And then she just blew our socks off! She was hitting shots that you just couldn’t get to.”
Soon they became disciples, going to Falkenberg’s clinics and taking private lessons. They love the way she plays, and love the way she teaches even more. They even help her get ready for tournaments, usually by standing at the service line and smashing serves at Falkenberg as hard as they can.
“She has improved my game tremendously,” he said. “There’s no jokes and no time for laughter when she’s out there teaching. She’ll tell me, ‘You’ve got to focus on what you’re doing!’ It’s like I’m back in grade school.”
Falkenberg, who will turn 70 in January, plans to keep playing at the professional level. She’s doing it because she can. She’s doing it for herself. And she’s doing it to motivate others.
“The older people, they say I’m the inspiration for them to keep going,” she said. “Because it is possible.”