When Alice Tym arrived at the University of Florida as a freshman in 1960, there was no women’s tennis team. So, she started one and played number- one singles for four straight years. A feat amplified by the fact she’d only first tried the sport in high school.
“I grew up in Peoria, Illinois. I was playing baseball — not softball, but baseball — and my father wanted me to do something that was more respectable for a young girl,” Tym explained.
Wilson Sporting Goods sponsored a clinic at a local park, with 1953 Grand Slam champion Maureen Connolly as the instructor. Tym went and was hooked. “I just knew that that’s what I wanted to be — just like her. That was the beginning, and I never looked back. I’ve played tennis ever since, or another racket sport.”
Following her college career, Tym joined the international tennis circuit, playing all four Grand Slam events and in tournaments all over the world, earning a world ranking as high as number 13 in 1969.
“What is the chance that somebody from Peoria, Illinois would have to travel all over the world? Meet kings and queens, have just incredible experiences,” Tym reflected. “New Zealand, Australia, India — these places were fantastic. There wasn’t a separate women’s tour and a separate men’s tour. We were all together. It was so much fun because every night was a party. I didn’t play for any other reason than it was really fun. And it can still be fun.”
After starting a family, Tym began a hall-of-fame collegiate coaching career. She started the women’s tennis team at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where her teams won three consecutive AIAW national championships. From there Tym moved to the Ivy League, coaching the Yale University women’s team to two conference championships. In 1983 the International Tennis Hall of Fame named Tym its Tennis Educational Merit Award winner, and in 2008 she was inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Women’s Hall of Fame.
Tym earned a master’s degree in geography from the University of Florida in 1966, and in 1982 she returned to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to join the geography faculty. But just because Tym stopped playing and coaching tennis, didn’t mean she was done competing.
She transferred her skills to other racket sports, like badminton, pickleball, and table tennis, quickly excelling. Tym has earned multiple world and national championships. She brought home four gold medals and a bronze from the 2022 National Senior Games, and won two gold medals in the 2022 Margaritaville USA Pickleball National Championships.
What keeps Alice Tym trying new sports and competing at 80? Is she genetically blessed or a freak of nature?
“No! Just quit bitching and do something. Get out there and do it,” Tym said. “Table tennis is really difficult, it’s really challenging, but every day you can see yourself get better. Whereas tennis, you go downhill. I mean there’s not a lot of 80-year-olds playing Wimbledon.
“So, you can learn a new sport or learn to throw the javelin, for example. All the techniques that are involved in that are just as challenging at 80 as tennis was back when I was 17.”
Now it’s pickleball that takes Tym to Spain, Germany, and Italy. A lifelong environmentalist, she builds in trips to national parks around pickleball tournaments in the U.S. “Really in many ways, the sport is secondary to the opportunity to see the country, and that’s been true all over the world. I’ve been an environmentalist since I could walk, and everybody should be because it’s something we all share.”
It’s that engagement and agency in her life that keeps Alice Tym looking forward, guided by an inner compass pointed toward fun.
“I’m not one of those people who plays for health benefits or exercise. I just play because it’s fun. And it’s always been fun,” Tym said.
“The tournaments aren’t the same, but (in a way) they can be. We still laugh. We still have a tremendous amount of fun. We have a carload of people going down to Orlando to the nudist tournament. It’ll be fun. 80 is only relative to fun. Maybe we shouldn’t measure it in years, we should measure it in laughs.
“What is the misquote — that our fate is in our stars? It’s not in our stars, it’s in ourselves,” she said. “I don’t want to say age doesn’t matter, but you make the decision whether you want to be happy at 80 or happy at 20.”
This article is featured in the Spring 2023 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.