Carol Welder is both inspired and inspiring, not surprising when you consider her list of ground-breaking role models – Barbara Jordan, Chris Evert, and Billie Jean King, to name a few. As the current vice president of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the USTA board liaison to the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA), past president and current board member of both USTA Texas and the Capital Area Tennis Association (CATA) and the former executive director of CATA, she has some impressive credentials of her own. Welder’s passion for tennis has shaped her life and the lives of many others, and it all started in the ’70s on some public courts in South Austin.
You never know when a casual moment with friends will change your life. From the courts at the former Porter Middle School, now the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, Welder’s passion for tennis expanded from playing to include volunteering at local tournaments. As her experience and her circle of friends in the world of tennis grew, she took on increasingly more responsibility, volunteered with USTA Texas and CATA, and in 1986 became the executive director of CATA, a position she held for nine years. During that time, her mission became more focused as she began to build a legacy around junior tennis, or tennis for youth under the age of 18.
As part of her work with CATA, Welder established the Junior Awards Banquet, in part because at the time young tennis players were not being recognized for their achievements, unlike most other sports. The Junior Awards Banquet is still ongoing today, 17 years later, and now is able to provide tennis scholarships to graduating seniors who have demonstrated a commitment to tennis, academics, and community service. In the summer of 1996, a year after she resigned from her executive director position at CATA, Welder began volunteering with the National Junior Tennis and Learning network (NJTL), a nationwide network of community tennis organizations co-founded by tennis great Arthur Ashe, which seeks to develop the character of young people through tennis and education. This commitment spanned seven years, during which she developed a curriculum for character education that aligned with the six pillars of the Character Counts initiative – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
Character is a subject that comes up frequently in conversation with Carol Welder. In her words, “tennis is one of the only sports in which you’re charged with calling your own lines. You have to be very clear about ethical considerations.” Perhaps that’s one reason she’s the chair of the USTA Audit Committee and sits on the Budget Committee as well. For Welder, the game of tennis obviously provides more than exercise; rather, it is a framework for how she lives her life. Still at the core of that framework is her commitment to youth tennis, an area that has seen significant change of late, based in part upon her activism.
On January 1, USTA rules changed to establish the “Quickstart Method,” which allows different rules and different equipment for youth ten and under. This change was slow in coming, but thanks to the work of USTA staff and volunteers, children under ten can now learn to play on smaller courts with “right-sized” equipment—smaller racquets and balls with lowered compression to control the level of bounce. This became personal for Welder while she volunteered at a Special Olympics tournament in Austin. “My biggest takeaway from that,” she said, “was that I couldn’t believe they weren’t using the Quickstart method, which would have been so perfect for that population.” In her usual style, she immediately got in touch with USTA staff about the issue, and joined them in advocating for the necessary changes at Special Olympics events. The new ten and under competition rules took effect on January 1, 2012.
As busy as she may seem, it’s the world-wide travel that comes with Welder’s USTA and ITF Board service which she characterizes as “the really fun part.” In September 2011, she attended the annual meeting of the ITF in Bangkok, Thailand, and in March of this year attended another ITF meeting in Vienna, Austria. In May 2012, the USTA made a visit “On the Hill” in Washington D.C., where she heard Billie Jean King speak at the National Press Club and experienced a personal tour of the West Wing. She toured the Pentagon, met with members of Congress and agency staff of the Centers for Disease Control, Veteran’s Affairs, Urban Housing, and the Department of Education all with the goal of increasing awareness about the lifetime benefits of tennis. Asked what was most significant about the opportunities that come with her work, she replied, “Being able to meet people that have changed the world, like Billie Jean King. Being around game-changers is pretty motivating.”
Welder obviously loves the sport of tennis, but her passion extends to her life’s goal of making tennis available for everyone. “It’s a lifetime sport,” she said as she carefully set aside half of her crab panini for another time, ever mindful of a healthy diet and lifestyle. “In fact, a good friend of mine recently died at the age of 91, just before he had planned to play in a National 90’s Tournament.” Does she intend to play at that age? “Absolutely. Nothing else compares to tennis,” she replied. Welder’s sights are now set on establishing a large, public tennis center that would provide for open play, league play, and tournaments for youth, adults, and seniors. Her goal is to make tennis accessible and affordable for everyone.
Welder’s own workout routine is impressive as well, including tennis three to four times per week, weightlifting once per week, and biking and swimming whenever there is time. At the age of 50, she set and met a goal to complete her first Danskin triathlon. So where did the love of sports, particularly tennis, originate for her? “Not because anyone in my family played, but I was always athletic,” she said, “and always participated in sports.” In her all-girls Catholic high school, Welder was on the swimming and diving teams. Tennis was entirely her own discovery, but that didn’t come until she was in her late 20s. At 62, she has been playing for over 35 years. “Most of my best friends have come from tennis,” she said. “Playing sports with friends really adds another dimension to the friendship.”
Being part of the Welder family adds another dimension as well. Welder’s roots in Texas are deep and wide, and she represents the fourth generation of her family’s farming and ranching business, a rather large family business where she serves as the chair of the board. The ancestor who received the original land grant in the 1800’s, James Power, was an original signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. From working with her family, she said she learned “the importance of respect.” To the extent that theme runs through the story of Welder’s life, perhaps her family had something to do with her love of tennis after all. Amid all this activity, she finds plenty of time to spend with her two sons and three grandsons, who visit her frequently in Austin. In fact, she and her 13-year-old grandson, Harrison, will attend Wimbledon together in July.
In Carol Welder’s inimitable life, several people have influenced her significantly, but key among them is Sally Edwards, world-famous triathlete and the national spokesperson of the Danskin triathlon. Sally made it a tradition to always bring up the rear in the Danskin so that none of the participants would come in last. “One of Sally’s favorite sayings is my motto,” said Welder and quoted: ‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’”
Angela Luck lives and writes in Austin. She is co-owner of Copia Consulting and the board chair of Badgerdog Literary Publishing, a local nonprofit that promotes the literary arts.