By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — There was a time in her life when Lauren Summers believed that her crowning moment in 2010 would come while standing atop a medal stand in Whistler, B.C.
As one of the best young skiers in the nation — if not the world — Summers could freely dream about being a part of the Winter Olympics just a couple hours’ drive from her Edmonds home.
Instead, the University of Washington senior will have to settle for being honored at a Senior Day ceremony in a sport she’s still yet to master.
Today, Summers and two other UW seniors will attend the final home match of their collegiate tennis careers. Joyce Ardies probably will resume her role as No. 4 singles and No. 1 doubles player, and Aleksandra Malovic also is likely to play both singles and doubles. Summers will have to settle for the same role she has had for every dual meet of the spring season.
That is, she’ll watch from the sidelines.
Once a rising star on the alpine skiing circuit, Summers doesn’t have any regrets about changing sports before her senior year at Meadowdale High School — even though her current passion hasn’t brought nearly the individual success that her former one did.
“I got to go to college,” Summers said of why she doesn’t regret her decision to give up competitive skiing in 2005. “If I would’ve stayed with skiing, I probably would have been skiing full-time.
“A lot of stuff has happened, and I’ve met a lot of people. It would be really weird to think about my life going a different direction.”
The trails of what-if that branched out from Summers’s promising skiing career may well have led right into Whistler. A champion-level skier on the junior circuit, Summers actually was at the Winter Olympics two months ago — but only as a spectator. While there, she watched friends and former training partners Megan McJames, Alice McKennis and Hailey Duke — all of whom she had beaten in races during her career as a junior skier — compete for the U.S. Ski team.
“It was hard,” Summers said of seeing so many of her friends and former rivals compete at the highest level in Whistler. “But I couldn’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, I should be here.’ They put in four more years after (I quit the sport).”
While attending the Olympics with her former ski coach, Summers said coach Kyle Watson heard whispers of “she should have been here” from fellow coaches and athletes at the Games. The Vancouver Games was once a dream of hers, but it drifted away sometime before she left the sport in 2005 because of burnout.
From the very beginning, Summers established herself as a rising star in ski circles. She started skiing at 3 years old because her family had a cabin near Mount Baker, and within two years Summers was already competing.
She said she was first discovered at the age of 5, when a fellow skier told her parents that they should enter her in an upcoming race. They did, and the 5-year old won it — against a field made up of skiers 13-and-under.
The following 111/2 years were filled with races just about every week. Summers became a rising star on the junior circuit, spending the warm months in places like Chile, Switzerland and Austria while skiing against international competition. She won a gold medal at the Junior Olympics. Colleges like Colorado, Utah and New Mexico were showing interest in offering her a college scholarship.
In March 2005, at the age of 16, Summers won the Super G race in a Federation of International Skiing event in Snow King, Wyo., and was entertaining realistic dreams of qualifying for the 2010 Olympic team. The skiing world, as they say, was at her feet.
But around that same time, Summers’s parents were going through a divorce. Her father, Craig Summers, said Lauren’s family situation “probably added pressure and stress to the pressure and stress she already had as part of a ski circuit and having to travel all over the world.”
In Dec. 2005, while skiing alongside future Olympians from several countries at the prestigious Nor-Am event in Colorado, Summers knew she couldn’t do it anymore. She had been battling fatigue and burnout since showing up for a ski camp a week earlier, and even a trip to the Nor-Am wasn’t enough to inspire her.
And so, while taking a ski lift up for one of her qualifying runs at the international event, Summers called her father in the ski lodge and told him she was ready to quit. Craig Summers admits that he was “shocked” by her decision, but he supported her all the way.
“Here she’d worked 15 years to get to the top of the mountain, literally, and I didn’t want to see her throw that all away,” Craig Summers said this week. “But, no, I didn’t try to talk her out of it. I let her make that decision, and I supported her in that decision. And we never went back there (to that conversation).”
In hindsight, he said Thursday afternoon, it might have been a blessing in disguise.
“There was a part of me that was kind of glad that she quit because it felt like I got my daughter back,” said Craig Summers, who often accompanied Lauren to ski competitions and gained custody of her after the divorce. “It felt like I’d lost my daughter a little bit because she was traveling so much.”
On the other end of the cell phone while sitting in that Colorado ski lodge, Craig Summers talked his daughter into giving it one last downhill run. She got to the top of the hill and did just that, turning in the finest race of her career. Summers qualified for the next round of the Nor-Am.
“Everyone was like, ‘Congratulations, I’ll see you next race,’” she said this week. “I was like, ‘No, you won’t.’”
Summers, who had been playing tennis at Meadowdale since her freshman year, decided to dedicate herself to that sport full time. She began inquiring about possible college opportunities, but got only offers to walk on.
Summers ended up enrolling at UW, where she beat out three other freshmen in a walk-on tryout and joined a Huskies team that wasn’t much of a factor on the national scene. An injury to a teammate allowed her to play in 16 matches in her first year, but Summers didn’t win a single one.
“It was tough during the season,” she said this week. “You’re used to standing on top of a podium. I got used to everyone knowing who you are. Everyone loves that part. It was a little bit of a shock.”
After that freshman season, teammate and roommate Tara Simpson asked Summers when she planned to tell UW coach Jill Hultquist that she was going to quit the team, telling Summers: “Most freshmen (walk-ons) quit after their freshman year. You realize you’re not going to play. That’s no fun.”
Summers was determined not to give up on another sport, not only because she sacrificed her skiing career to pursue it, but also because she loved being a part of a team.
Over the next three years, the UW tennis program soared, and Summers found it more and more difficult to get into a singles match. But she never gave up.
And today, having won just eight of her 33 singles matches at UW, Summers will watch her teammates at home for the final time. There will be no “Rudy” moments with Summers running onto the court and winning a match with a blistering serve. When the 16th-ranked Huskies go to the NCAA tournament later this month, she’ll probably have to pay her own way to get there.
But Summers feels like a success because she made it to the end. Summers was determined not to quit this sport, and she never wavered.
“She was always in a good mood,” said Hultquist, the Huskies’ head coach. “She came to practice with a smile on her face every day, and people fed off that energy.”
“What I’m most proud about,” father Craig Summers said, “is her ability to be a team player, a teammate, and not just focused upon herself. I really admire her ability and desire to want to support all of her teammates — through thick and thin.”
And as far as being an athlete, Lauren Summers isn’t finished with that yet. Nor has she given up dreams of an Olympic gold medal.
After she graduates — with a dual major, naturally, in microbiology and environmental health — Summers plans to take up ski cross, a new Olympic sport that combines alpine racing, jumping and teamwork.
“I want to try triathlons, too,” she said. “There’s always something. There’s no way I could not compete.”