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Aug 23, 2020

Beyond the Game: Mackenzy Middlebrooks

Written by Mackenzy Middlebrooks

Afternoon on Thursday, March 12th, finally arrived and I took a sigh of relief. With no Friday classes, I had officially made it to spring break. I drove to the tennis courts and typed my Jimmy Johns order in the team WhatsApp for our upcoming road trip. The team and I were hitting the road to play No. 10 Duke on Friday, and all of us were excited for yet another opportunity to play a highly ranked program. We had so much promise in front of us, and we were steadily improving.

Our spirits were high at the end of practice. I had a film review right after, so I dropped my things off in the locker room and headed to coach’s office. Everything continued as normal. I scouted my potential Duke opponent and wrote down strategies that I thought would be successful against her. I discussed her strengths and weaknesses with coach, and together we came up with patterns that I could implement during the match. Halfway through our meeting, we got interrupted. Duke had just canceled the match.

The hours that followed were a blur. I left the meeting and walked downstairs to the locker room where my teammates were waiting anxiously. What did this mean? Were we just going to postpone the match, or cancel the entire season like the Ivy Leagues had announced the night before? A few hours later we had a team meeting where we found out the NCAA tournament was canceled. Everything we were working so hard for, just like that, vanished. In a moment, my senior season seemed to be stripped away from me.

Time stood still as the previous three and half years flashed before my eyes. I saw my 18-year-old self, an anxious, timid freshman scared to death to begin her collegiate career. I saw the long bus rides and karaoke sing-alongs and dance parties with teammates who turned into lifelong friends. I saw the grueling workouts and the dreaded beep test. Mostly, though, what flooded my memory were the relationships that I had built along the way. It is a funny thing the way that sports bring people from all different backgrounds, cultures, and countries together. Being on a team has a bonding power unlike anything I have ever experienced. We were different individuals all working towards a common goal. Each of us brought our own unique strengths to the table, and together we formed something special.

I walked outside and sat on the tennis court, taking it all in. I have grown in so many ways throughout my collegiate career. I have endured heartbreaking defeats and celebrated extraordinary victories. I have learned about discipline, sacrifice, time management, teamwork, and leadership. I stepped out of my comfort zone more times than I can count, and I am stronger because of it.

A few days after I found out the news of the season being postponed and the NCAA tournament being canceled, I packed up my things and drove home, unsure of when I would return to Clemson. Within the next few weeks, my life, along with the rest of the world, changed drastically.

COVID-19 felt like it came slowly, and then all at once. There are individuals all around the world who are suffering from the effects of this pandemic. Weddings have been postponed, sports seasons have ended, classes have moved online, stores have been shut down, and life as we know it seems to have been put on hold.

This pandemic has really opened my eyes to all of the things, big and little, that I took for granted. Before all of this, I never could have imagined not being able to play tennis at the public court by my house or having to wait in line to shop at the grocery store or not being able to watch the sunset on the beach. I walk around, looking at all the masked faces, and it feels surreal.  However, in the wake of this global tragedy, I have witnessed the resilience of humanity in full force. Healthcare workers are risking their lives on a daily basis by going into work and treating the sick, and individuals from all over the world are coming together to support each other in this time of need.

Looking back on the past year, I can’t help but think about my life, and how I ended up at Clemson. Growing up it was always my dream to play collegiate tennis, and I made many sacrifices in order to achieve that goal. I trained for hours on end before and after school, I missed countless birthday parties and high school dances because I was traveling for tennis tournaments, and my overall high school experience looked very different than most of my friends. However, the day that I signed my NLI paper, I knew that it had all been worth it. A few months later I packed up my things and headed to the University of Missouri where I would spend my first three years of college.

Nothing prepares you for playing a Division I sport, and until you are in the thick of it, it is hard to fully grasp. To the world’s eye it looks glamorous. They see all of the fancy gear, the photoshoots, the free food and the trips to different schools around the country. However, they do not see the hours behind the scenes that athletes spend honing their craft. They don’t see the sore muscles and the rigid ice baths and the late nights studying after a long road-trip.

My very first workout in college I was brought to tears. I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was an afternoon in mid-July, and it was the first (of many) stadium workouts. I ran up and down those stairs for what felt like a lifetime with the scorching, summer sun beating down on my face. My legs felt like bricks, my heart was pounding, and without any warning at all, tears started streaming down my face. I had no idea how I was going to finish the workout, and I was sure that my legs were going to give out any second. However, what came next was even more shocking. From out of nowhere, my teammates, who I had only known for a week or so, started screaming my name, cheering for me and encouraging me. They weren’t going to let me stop and they were in it with me. I was not alone. This was the first time I had ever truly experienced the bonding power of sports. Over time, most of the wins and losses blend together, but it is the moments like that, that will forever be ingrained in my memory. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself and my sport. Tennis is such an individual sport in the juniors, but in college I was finally playing for a team and representing a university. I relished it.

I loved so much about Mizzou, but the summer before my senior year of college I was completely burnt out and I did not even want to pick up a tennis racket. I was mentally drained and physically exhausted, and it was no longer an environment where I felt like I could succeed or accomplish my goals. After much deliberation, I knew I needed a change and I decided to transfer for my final year.

The moment I stepped foot on Clemson’s campus it felt like home and I knew it was where I was meant to spend my final year of college. Before I knew it, the first week of classes were beginning and I jumped into things head-first and full-throttle. Slowly but surely, I began to recharge. With the encouragement of the coaching staff and the support of my teammates, the sport that I fell in love with at such a young age no longer felt like a chore.

It is hard to find words that accurately express the gratitude I have for Clemson. In short, transferring to Clemson changed my life. Thank you doesn’t even begin to suffice, but for now it will have to do. To my coaches who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself and encouraged me every single day not just to be a better tennis player, but also a better person — thank you. To my teammates who brought me in and treated me like family from the very first day — thank you. To my strength and conditioning trainers who made the beep test and long runs slightly more bearable — thank you. To my academic advisor and professors who helped me achieve success in the classroom and figure out what life might look like after school — thank you. To my athletic trainer who could magically make any soreness or nagging pain vanish, and who became one of my biggest cheerleaders — thank you. And to everyone else who I came into contact with at Clemson, it has truly been a pleasure and an honor to represent such an incredible University.

While I am unsure what the future holds for me in light of this crisis, I would not change a part of my journey for one second. I will always be proud to wear orange and purple, and I will always be proud to call myself a Clemson Tiger.

The original version of this story was published in the June 2020 issue of Orange the Experience Magazine

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