Coach: Glenview's Diane Donnelly Stone a hall of famer
One of the fun things about writing stories for a local newspaper is uncovering some of the hidden gems who live and work right here in our very own community.
Thanks to the work of some outside 'journalistic assistance," I was turned on to one of these stories recently.
Meet Glenview's very own Diane Donnelly Stone, newest member of the National Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame. The induction ceremony was earlier this month, but Donnelly Stone's remarkable story starts long before that, some five decades ago, and it is one of overcoming almost overwhelming odds to achieve tennis stardom.
The obstacles she had to overcome can be checked off in order.
Playing in the shadow of her dad who was a tennis star in his own right? Check. ("He was a great tennis dad," she said. "He encouraged us to work hard but still have fun, and he knew when to step away and let us do our own thing, too.")
Overcoming being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the tender age of 6? Check. "It was right when I started to fall in love with the game, and some doctors were telling me to be careful and that maybe competitive tennis might be a little too dangerous," she said. "Needless to say, I didn't take that advice and started playing competitively in junior tournaments and other competitions. It was hard, because as a young kid I had to constantly monitor my sugar levels and, sometimes, had to prick my finger 8 to 10 times a day. Not easy when I was so intense into sports."
Overcoming a lack of height and reach? Check. "When I graduated high school, I was only (4-feet, 11-inches). Not exactly ideal height for playing Division 1 tennis. But Sandy Stap Clifton, the Northwestern coach, saw me play in some junior tournaments and offered me a chance to be on the team. At the time, Northwestern was a Top 10 program with the solid academics and a coach I really liked; the decision was pretty easy."
Overcoming the aforementioned height disadvantage and the Type 1 diabetes, plus all the competition within the Wildcat program to earn a spot in the lineup and at least fight for some quality playing time? Check. "I worked really hard to move up the ladder at Northwestern and, by junior year, I made No. 2 singles, and by senior year was playing No. 1."
Yes, Donnelly Stone checked all those boxes and many more. By her senior year, that 6-year-old girl from Kalamazoo, Michigan, a tennis hotbed of a community, was now up to 5-feet, 3-inches tall and was good enough to, at one point, be ranked No. 5 in the entire country.
She picked up the nickname "Little Lightning" because of her size and the speed and quickness with which she played.
In 1987, she and partner Katrina Adams (a great future professional, and maybe the finest tennis player the city of Chicago has ever turned out) won the NCAA National Championship in doubles. By winning the title, she and Adams became the first female individual athletes ever at Northwestern to win a National Championship.
That title was just a topper to a phenomenal college career that also included being named a three time All American and a three time All Big Ten selection as well.
The secret to her success? "I just loved the game of tennis right from an early age," exudes the now hall-of-famer adding, "I loved being active and loved getting exercise, and tennis was perfect for that; I have a really strong competitive instinct as well. I think my height also made me work that much harder to achieve success."
The longtime Glenview resident's story does not end after college, though. Not by a longshot. After playing a couple of years on the professional circuit and winning a couple of ITS Challenge Championships, ankle injuries and autoimmune issues due to Type 1 diabetes brought her playing career to an end.
While looking for work in Chicago, Donnelly Stone interviewed with World Team Tennis, just looking to get involved in any way in the sports and marketing field. The person doing the interviewing said they might have a position open, and it would be as an assistant to Billie Jean King. Any younger readers not familiar with her name, just type "women's tennis icon" into your Google search and that name should come up right at the top).
"Before the interviewer finished the sentence, I said 'I'll take it, and I will work for free!'" laughs Donnelly Stone. "I couldn't believe I would get an opportunity to work with someone I looked up to my entire life."
That interview was over 33 years ago, and amazingly, especially in this day and age of "work for two years, then move on to something else," Donnelly Stone still is with Billie Jean King, who is still active at 79.
"I worked as an assistant to her handling a lot of the interviews and setting up special events, and then even got into running some of her World Team Tennis events and getting to meet tennis greats such as Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors. It was pretty amazing."
"Billie Jean, over the years, has become my closest friend and has become like an aunt to my kids. She even surprised us years ago and said we are going to start the Donnelly Awards and give out scholarships to young tennis players who have the obstacle of diabetes to overcome."
The Donnelly scholarships, named after Diane and her sister, Tracy, who played at Iowa and also worked with Billie Jean, have now awarded over 200 scholarships and more than $800,000 in collegiate assistance, all to young tennis players with diabetes.
A long and winding tennis-filled road, no doubt, for Donnelly Stone. From following her dad Bud in her early years, to watching all his tournament competitions, to starring in a tennis family (sister Lisa also played D-1 tennis at Toledo), and all the success at Northwestern, where she met her husband Mike, who was on the golf team.
The family moved to Glenview 21 years ago, and children Stephanie and Nick both played sports at Loyola Academy. Daughter Stephanie played tennis; son Nick somehow mixed the tennis and golf DNA from his parents, then got sidetracked, ending up as a lacrosse player for the Ramblers.
The Hall of Fame ceremony and induction was Sept. 17 on the campus of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. The whole family, plus friends from Glenview and ex-teammates and coaches, were all there for her induction.
"I was pretty nervous getting ready to give my speech, especially because I was the last one to go so I had to wait a long time," she said. " But once I got to the podium, all the nervousness went away, and I felt pretty comfortable talking."
Sounds a little bit like the way she performed on the tennis court.
Oh ... and presenting her at the induction ceremony? Her coach Sandy Stap Clifton AND the very first person to ever be named to the Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame: Billie Jean King herself.
That's some pretty good company. And now Donnelly Stone's name is on that plaque.
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.