Lezlie Murch is an unsung hero. Or at least, to whatever extent she’s recognized and applauded, it’s not enough. Today, she’s most likely to be found at a wide variety of events, meetings and projects that are the lifeblood of the Rotary Club of St Catharines. Lezlie is a director of the club and has filled every conceivable position. She embraces its philosophy, mission and work ethic – Service Above Self – with passion. But that’s only a sidebar to our “unsung hero” tale.
A lifelong resident of St Catharines, Lezlie learned to play tennis at the St Catharines Tennis Club (now the BAC). Once she earned her coaching credentials, she was a teaching pro at Niagara-on-the-Lake Tennis Club and then at White Oaks. But in 1997 extraordinary circumstances conspired to bring about the Niagara Academy of Tennis (NAT), a labor of love that is now celebrating its 20th illustrious anniversary.
This is a very short version of a very long story, but two elements are central to the origins of the Academy. The first and most important is the adoption by Lezlie and her husband Bob of a beloved 6-year-old Bolivian orphan named Julio, a life changer in every way. The second was a piece of property, near the intersection of the QEW and Victoria Avenue, with an unusual history. The property was managed by the Moses Rittenhouse Trust, a gift to the community for the combined purpose of education and fitness – manifest by a public library and tennis courts. But in 1996, a new expansive Lincoln Public Library was built; the old library was shuttered and the entire facility was closed.
Lezlie and Bob recognized that home-schooling would be best for Julio. White Oaks was in the throes of major renovations and changes. The idea of a Tennis Academy was considered by the Trustees to be an ideal match. All that needed to happen was for an audacious move to be undertaken by a young woman who was passionate about tennis and about education.
Asked to recall those early days, Lezlie could only shake her head. “I don’t know what I was thinking or where we found the courage. There were so many obstacles …. so many challenges …. so many needs to be met. When I look back, I can’t imagine how we ever did it.”
It was done one step at a time, the Arthur Ashe way : Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
Tennis Director Doug Carter was an early supporter and has been central to the success of NAT all the way. When this began, Doug had been Director of Tennis at White Oaks for 17 years. And he had just turned 40, bought a new house and was about to get married to his lovely wife Laurie. At the prospect of striking out in a new direction, his primary thought was : “Do we really want to do this?” What might he have thought if he’d known he and Laurie would have twins, James and Laurene, three years later! “In the beginning it was admittedly over-ambitious and a little unrealistic, but here we are 20 years later. Who said life is easy!”
Lezlie sums up NAT’s purpose as supporting student-athletes to meet their goals while challenging them to realize personal excellence in character, leadership and scholarship. She’s most proud of a 100% record for graduates with a desire to attend post-secondary education. There are 94 of them to date, from a total of 21 countries.
The international mix of students is a very special feature of NAT. Student athletes from distant parts of Canada, or from other countries, are home billeted with area families. This creates a unique learning environment for local students who commute to school, as well as those from afar. At the moment, there are a total of 20 full-time students, nine of them being billeted and eleven from the surrounding area. They’re supported by academic instructors, coaches, a fitness trainer, nutrition consultant, sport psychologist and physiotherapists. And they’re playing impressive tennis!
The Academy also serves as a hub, supporting tennis development beyond its doors. There’s a strong partnership with the adjacent community of Grimsby, for example, where longtime Recreation Director Bruce Atkinson and his successor Sarah Sweeney have wonderfully enlightened attitudes toward community programming. “What can we do to help?” is the approach they take when meetings are held to set up the annual summer programs. The Town retains NAT coaches to operate the Monday-to-Friday junior camps, and has provided extra assistance such as a Leader-in-Training student and first aid training. The Grimsby Tennis Club works with NAT to provide coaching for its members – adults, juniors and families.
An extensive schedule is available for local youngsters who know “it’s worth the drive” to Vineland. During the winter, there are after-school sessions in the Academy bubble at both the starter level (progressive tennis) and performance levels. During the summer, there are day programs and week-long camps outdoors for children at all playing levels. And there are tournaments : the NAT staff are expert at managing events and so are tapped by the OTA and by SW Region to host over 40 weekend competitions each year. Schools programs are provided free of charge whenever resources can be freed up and schedules arranged.
It’s a lot to manage, and a lot of expense to juggle. Total annual operating expenses amount to $700,000 – a huge sum which has to be put together bit by little bit. As a small example, hosting an OTA tournament will yield a net surplus of about $300, such that 40 weekends of work will add up to just over $12,000. The task of creating enough programs to generate enough revenue to pay all the bills is never-ending and can be stressful. Lezlie meets the challenge by focusing instead on the students. “It’s so rewarding to see the young kids in the school gradually improving and gaining confidence. And it’s fabulous to hear from graduates and learn of their successes and their achievements in life.” In fact, a number of graduates are now employed by the Academy, including Julio.
Lezlie freely admits it isn’t getting any easier to operate a sports academy …. in fact, quite the reverse. The same ever-growing regulations that challenge all small businesses, and the complications of modern life that make things difficult for families, combine to make it seem almost impossible at times. Lezlie’s motto of “Be magnificent in all that we say and do” means there can be no settling for half-best.
On reflection, some may wonder how much longer it can be sustained, which is all the more reason to celebrate the Niagara Academy of Tennis in the here and now. Each of those 20 years has been a little miracle, for which a host of students will be forever grateful, not only to Lezlie but also to their coaches, teachers and classmates. And Lezlie Murch has never taken a dime from it. Think about that. Then join in the singing! More about the twentieth anniversary