Mary Weatherholt will play the defending national champion Monday for the 2013 NCAA title.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Gladys the Gladiator Defies Looks and Logic

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York’s N-Sider

Watch Weatherholt in NCAA Singles Championship on The NCAA Women's Tennis Singles Championship will be broadcast live Monday at noon CT on with Joe Gentry and Harry Cicma calling the action.

Julie Tuttle will never forget that summer day three years ago when Nebraska Head Tennis Coach Scott Jacobson called to discuss Mary Weatherholt’s rehabilitation from ACL knee surgery. Jacobson said his No. 1 player had been rehabbing at home in Prairie Village, Kansas, and was ready to finish her rehab in Lincoln. Jacobson also told Tuttle that Weatherholt was an “excessively focus-driven individual.”

Nebraska’s athletic trainer for 2013 NCAA Sweet 16 teams in both women’s basketball and women’s tennis, Tuttle knows physical and mental toughness when she sees it, and the picture that Jacobson painted of Weatherholt, who will play defending NCAA singles champion Nicole Gibbs of Stanford at noon on Monday for the 2013 national individual title, was a classic case of the product falling far short of the promotion. To this day, Tuttle can’t eliminate the image she had in her first encounter with Weatherholt, who still could be the ultimate “before” photo for any strength-deprived athlete.

In those initial days she spent with Weatherholt, Tuttle was puzzled and downright bewildered about the person she wanted to help bring back to competitive tennis. “The first day, Mary told me how she’d wear a pink tutu not only to practice, but to the movies,” recalled Tuttle, who can’t remember all the goofy things they discussed, but can recall vividly what she was thinking throughout the conversations.

Weatherholt Has Focus, Drive, Mental Toughness

“I kept thinking to myself, there is no way … absolutely no way, this kid can be our No. 1 singles player,” Tuttle said. “Then, as the rehab got harder and harder, she got tougher and tougher. I’ve worked with a lot of mentally tough athletes, and Mary is right up there at the top. She really is. Her focus and drive are incredible. I thought she was goofy until I saw all that kick in, and I will never forget the first time I saw her play. I said to everyone around me: ‘Who is that girl out there on that tennis court?’”

After the match, Weatherholt answered the question herself. “That’s Gladys,” she told Tuttle.

“Gladys who?” Tuttle asked.

“Gladys the Gladiator!” Weatherholt answered.

“She calls herself Gladys off the court, but once she gets on it, she thinks to herself that she’s Gladys the Gladiator,” Tuttle said. “They’re alternate personalities, and she carries them with her all the time. It’s a treat. It really is because she’s so competitive and yet so much fun. She has this little switch in her head, and she can turn it off and on like no one I’ve ever seen. She can be the obsessed competitor, yet also this fun-loving girl who will wear a pink tutu and have pink strings on her racket, so people don’t take her seriously ... and that’s exactly what she wants.”

The Gladiator Excels Individually and Team-Wise

Nebraska’s 2013 Student-Athlete of the Year wants opposing coaches and players to see her as Gladys every time she walks on the court. At the same time, she’s recalibrating her brain to transform into Gladys the Gladiator. I ask Weatherholt about the process, and her laugh basically becomes her answer. Somehow, I understand what’s probably rolling around in her head: “Why would I talk about a secret I’ve had since I came to Nebraska?” She is, after all, writing her name into Husker history on a daily basis. After becoming Nebraska’s first-ever Sweet 16 singles player, first elite eight player, first final four player and now first Husker ever to play for an NCAA national championship, Weatherholt is a certified trailblazer in pursuit of her sport’s holy grail.

“Mary is an amazing young lady and an equally amazing tennis player,” Nebraska Associate Head Tennis Coach Hayden Perez said. “You look at some of these players she’s competing against. They’re great physical athletes, and Mary doesn’t look like any of them. It defies logic, but I know what she’s made of. This kid is all heart, and I mean all heart. She looks so unassuming, but her mental toughness is what separates her from others. You have to beat her. She will not beat herself. She’s an intelligent person and her game is all about being smart and showing heart.”

Weatherholt won another straight set to make the finals. "It was just another amazing day for Mary," Perez said. "Her approach to the match was the same each day of the tournament, and she came out very focused and determined from the beginning. She was very dominant and asserted herself throught the match. I think the two best players in the tournament are in the final. It's going to be a great final, and Mary is looking forward to it."

For the record, Weatherholt and Sims have never met in singles competition. It's also important to point out that Stanford has won the NCAA team championship 16 times

When the Challenge Comes, the Fight Comes Out

Count Tuttle as one who believes Weatherholt can weather almost any storm that comes her way. “Mary’s very, very nice, but she’s also very, very driven,” Tuttle said. “If anyone challenges her, you see the fight come out in her immediately. If you push her, she rises up. Her focus is amazing. Not many can compete so hard and yet have so much fun. She needs to be Gladys before she takes on the Gladiator role. That’s what makes her so successful.  She likes to have fun in everything she does. Her teammates love her, and they know that she loves them, too. She is so amazing. She really is.”

Tuttle told Jacobson that he recruits tennis players like Connie Yori recruits basketball players. “They have the same types of personalities. They’re people with high character,” she said. “You can develop skills, but the character and the work ethic have to be there for that to happen. I’ve seen WNBA athletes with that kind of mental toughness, and Lindsey Moore certainly has it. I’ve never worked with a tennis player like Mary, though. She’s truly one of a kind. She has a switch that I wish more athletes could turn on like she does.”

The transformation fascinates the athletic trainer. “You’ll see Mary be Gladys, joking around, playing around and having all kinds of fun,” she said. “Then, all of a sudden, you look out there and Gladys has become this highly competitive Gladiator. Considering all the rehab she’s been through and what she’s had to do to get where she is now, I’d have to say she’s the toughest mentally I’ve seen – by far. I don’t think her opponents see what we know. You look at how she’s built and how strong she might be, and you almost have to think: ‘How is this tiny little thing going to beat me?’ And then she kicks it all in and goes out there and kicks your butt.”

Osborne Email: Weatherholt’s Ultimate Tribute

Tom Osborne, Nebraska’s Athletic Director Emeritus, has followed the meteoric climb of Husker tennis through the lens of both a coach and an athletic director. He likes the approach Jacobson and Perez are taking, and he admires the fight inside Weatherholt every time she takes the court. Before the Huskers went on to win the Big Ten Conference Championship this spring, he sent Weatherholt an encouraging email.

“Coach Osborne told Mary that she was lucky he wasn’t still coaching because if he were, he’d try to recruit her to play football,” Perez related. “That email was the ultimate tribute, and it’s one of Mary’s most prized possessions. She printed it out and said she will always keep it because Coach Osborne is such a legendary figure.”

Friday, I asked that legendary figure about thetreasured email he sent, and like Mary, his laugh reflects a positive answer. “To get where Mary is, you need an awful lot of mental toughness,” Osborne said. “And that’s what it takes to compete and win at the highest level in just about any sport.”

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