You don't often hear retirement stories about high school seniors, but Caroline Wakefield's final season with a Lambert visor will mark the end of her tennis career. For the next three months, she plans to lay everything on the line.
She's as healthy as ever. Sharper than ever. More mature, more talkative, more competitive, she thinks. So, what drew her away from the game she loves?
In the face of expectation and routine, Wakefield simply wants to move on to life's next big challenge. When she zips away her racket and packs away her bright pink tennis shoes for the last time, her journey to become an industrial engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology will begin.
The opportunity to pursue an academic career like the one she'll receive at Georgia Tech is unexpected, but the greatest opportunity of Wakefield's life. That's why she's taking it and putting tennis aside.
“I think, seeing how tough it was to get into Georgia Tech this year. Not many people got in, and I realized I would be making a big mistake not to take the opportunity,” Wakefield said. “I love math and science, so industrial engineering will be a great fit.”
Wakefield has been playing tennis like it's her job since she was just 7 years old. Her coach, at the time, pulled her and her family aside and recommended she stick to it. Not many 7-year old kids make that type of impression. She grew into a star—a 3-star recruit, in fact—and ended up with a top-10 ranking in the state of Georgia, according to TennisRecruiting.net, and 10 scholarship offers.
In November, Wakefield signed a national letter of intent with Kennesaw State after she caught the coaches’ eyes while finishing fourth at the Georgia State Qualifier in Macon, Ga. She also had offers from Georgia Southern, Georgia College, and even Lehigh in Pennslyvania, before choosing to sign with KSU in hopes of turning around an Owls program desperate for wins.
As much as Wakefield would have helped, she made a decision last month after receiving her acceptance letter from by far the most prestigious school on her list.
That means this season is it. Wakefield is the team captain, one of eight seniors, a mentor for a few talented freshmen and the emotional equilibrium of the team. Off the court, she comes across much more like a shy bookworm. On the court, the Division I athlete still shows through.
“I think I have this competitive spirit no matter what I do,” Wakefield said. “I think off the court I don't show a lot of emotion, but out there I surprise people sometimes with my c'mons and yelling out. I've opened up as I've grown older, showed my more competitive side. I think tournament experience has helped me with that.”
She still wakes up at 5 a.m., every day. Still hits the gym four times a week. She's trained for half-marathons, done P90X in her free time and spends her weekends clearing her head on the court.
No matter what, the DNA of an athlete will never leave Wakefield.
“This is pretty much the pinnacle of all of my tennis,” Wakefield said. “It's kind of the end of my major tennis career. I'm here to leave it all on the court. This is what it's for. Hopefully it's something good.”
Last year, the Lady Longhorns lost to the team that has become their nemesis—Walton. The Lady Raiders swept their way through the state bracket last season in route to a Class AAAAAA state title.
With Walton losing players and Lambert gaining young talent, Wakefield's focus is on winning a state championship. She won't look away to Atlanta until that dream is either realized, or everything is left on the court in pursuit of it.
“This is our year,” Wakefield said.