Mary Kate Rielley comes from a well-known tennis family around the Kansas City area.
Her father once took a set off of eight-time major champion Jimmy Connors, and her older sister, Colleen, went to Notre Dame on a full scholarship after reaching No. 1 nationally in the girls 18s division.
Mary Kate’s parents, Rich and Peg, adopted her from China four years ago.
“I get a lot of lessons from my dad,” Mary Kate said. “He’s really good.”
Earlier this month, she found out that she’d be getting some lessons from someone other than Dad.
As a result of her athletic and academic success, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) selected Mary Kate, along with 35 other players aged 12 to 14, to attend the 28th annual USTA Tennis Leadership Camp.
Mary Kate, a 13-year-old from Overland Park, recently spent a week at the University of Minnesota learning about tennis and leadership.
“That camp was a lot of fun,” Mary Kate said. “We played a lot of tennis. We did a lot of match play and did drills and fun games that helped us get better.”
But the camp, which is affiliated with the USTA’s National Junior Tennis & Learning network chapters, proved to be about more than tennis.
Mary Kate said campers spent time volunteering with the “Books for Africa” program and also heard from a number of guest speakers, including Jon Rydberg, a U.S. men’s wheelchair tennis player who is a 2012 Paralympian.
“It was inspiring,” Mary Kate said. “He told us about his background, how he got into a wheelchair and how he fell in love with the sport. He has (gone) through so much just so he can play tennis.”
Mary Kate was nominated for the camp by the Stephanie Waterman Foundation, where her family has spent time volunteering.
The foundation provides “disadvantaged inner city youth the chance of a brighter future through tennis, mentoring and tutoring,” according to its website.
Mary Kate’s godmother, Kilmeny Waterman Connor, helps run the foundation and said she was thrilled for her goddaughter to attend the camp.
“It was a perfect fit because all of the qualities (needed to attend the camp) describe her, just by how she acts and how she holds herself on the tennis court,” Connor said. “She is very kind and very sportsmanlike, and obviously she’s a good player and she’s going to be a very good player. She’s got a great heart and she can mix with anyone, so it was a great fit.”
Connor, the former women’s tennis coach at the University of Kansas, said that her time away at camp will be beneficial for her in the long run in regards to tennis.
“I think it’s great she’s done so well without much private instruction and clinics,” Connor said. “Her parents know a ton about tennis, but getting a different opinion will be very helpful for her.”
Mary Kate said the camp taught her as much about life and leadership as it did about tennis. It taught her to stay hungry.
“I’ve learned to set goals and to just never give up in life,” Mary Kate said.
She hopes that her hunger for athletic – and academic – excellence will allow her to reach her goals.
“I’m working hard to get a college scholarship,” Mary Kate said. “I’m hoping to go far.”