By Kalani Soli

Representing your home country is always something special, no doubt about that.

But this past summer, when I got to represent American Samoa at the Pacific Games (formerly known as South Pacific Games), it was even more special.

I wanted to win a medal, absolutely, but there is something about impacting others that far outweighs any award or accomplishment ever could.

You see, I ended up writing history for American Samoa. I brought home four medals for my country – one in singles, doubles, mixed doubles and our team event.

This was the most ever for American Samoa in any sport.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this to brag. But when I returned home and was swarmed by kids who wanted to take pictures with me and my medals, or even wear them, I felt so proud.

More importantly, I know that a lot of young kids began to pick up tennis because of my success. And that’s what it’s all about.

I’ve always wanted to do something bigger than tennis, and I think my success at the Pacific Games accomplished just that.

The Early Tennis Days

Tennis taught me a lot of lessons and brought me some of my favorite moments ever.

Oddly enough, I never expected I would play tennis, let alone accomplish what I have in the sport. Sometimes, I think tennis found me.

When I was just a little girl, after driving by some tennis courts, my parents suggested I try out the sport. We knew there were after-school programs that I could participate in. I was hesitant at first but figured I’d give it a shot.

And, after that very first hit of a tennis ball, I knew I found my sport. The racquet felt like it belonged in my hand, and the ball went flying right to the coach. It was great!

A Special Relationship

But obviously, hitting your first tennis ball is only the beginning.

As I got older, and quite frankly better, the competition got more intense – something I really enjoyed.

When I turned 13, I started training with a great coach and became nationally ranked.

To this day, the relationship I had with this coach defined my career more than anything else.

Tennis is an expensive sport. And frankly, my parents couldn’t afford a top coach or to continually replace my equipment. So, we had to work out a deal with my coach.

If I did well in tournaments and brought him new clients, he’d continue to train me.

I know this was an odd arrangement, but when you realize that your development as a player depends on your success, you take this sport a lot more seriously than an average 13-year-old. This was a defining element to my growth.

Technically, the fate of my tennis career was now all up to me. If I wanted to succeed, I needed to keep pushing myself. I never had the luxury of falling back on my parents’ wealth. They supported me every step of the way in whatever way possible. But I knew I had to put in the work if I was going to make my dreams come true.

An Unforgettable Experience

And one of my dreams was to play tennis at the Division I level.

But, unfortunately, my homeschooling program wasn’t Division I accredited.

So, I first enrolled at Tyler Junior College. Tyler was willing to work with me while I was taking the classes I needed to get into a Division I school eventually.

And, honestly, my journey at Tyler is one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life. Especially when I clinched a national championship for Tyler.

Our team needed one more point to win the title, and it all came down to my singles match.

I was pretty nervous. I definitely felt the pressure. My opponent had beaten me the year before, and she was an excellent player. But, none of that mattered in that particular moment.

We went into a third set, where I led 5-4 and 40-30.

One more point and we’d win a national championship.

Next thing I know, my ball flew past her and it was all over.

I know this was an odd arrangement but when you realize that your development as a player depends on your success, you take this sport a lot more seriously than an average 13-year-old. This was a defining element to my tennis career.

Path To Liberty

Winning that national title with my team changed something inside of me. I was craving for more.

Without a doubt, this moment played a huge role in my performance at the Pacific Games last summer as well.

The confidence you gain from experiences like this is unmatched.

I took all of this confidence with me when I was finally able to make my dream of playing at a Division I school a reality. Joining the Liberty Flames was one of the proudest moments of my life. And this pride and confidence, I believe, showed in my inaugural DI season.

As I’m entering my final year of collegiate tennis, I’m more eager than ever to make the most out of it.

Just like I was able to put Tyler and American Samoa on the map of tennis, I now want to do the same at Liberty, all while impacting the next generation of tennis players for the Flames.

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