Members of the San Quentin Tennis Club slapped rackets against tennis balls in a series of matches against outside volunteers in August for the first time since the pandemic let up.
Pat Leog, Janie McCauley, Margie Moran and her 19-year-old son, Stefan Schneider, came into the prison to compete with the incarcerated tennis players. Some visitors said it was the best experience of their lives.
“To me it’s about meeting new people and being able to train and get better,” said Schneider.
This was his first time inside of a prison and it was nothing like what he imagined it would be. He envisioned it being a bunch of hardened criminals, a lot of fights and riots. In fact, it was just the opposite.
“This was my favorite volunteer experience I’ve ever had. These guys are competitive and I’m glad that they are enjoying it,” he commented.
Schneider, his mother and the rest of the tennis volunteers are part of the United States Tennis Association. They play regularly in different locations in the recreational tennis league in Northern California. All ages and all skill levels are able to compete. According to Schneider, he and his mom and guests have a skill-set rating of around 3.5 to 4.5, which is the middle or average.
That Saturday was hot and the sun radiated down through the fenced-in tennis court. Eight San Quentin’s residents, young and old, got the opportunity to play and enjoy the company of the outside guests.
“I don’t even feel like I’m in prison [when volunteers are here],” said Braydon Tennison, a newcomer to the prison and to the club. “I forget about everything else and just play tennis. It’s a privilege.”
That was his first time meeting a volunteer, and Tennison was very appreciative of the visitors coming into the prison to play with the incarcerated men.
The volunteers teamed up, each with a SQ resident, for double matches. Margie Moran partnered with SQ’s James Duff while AP sports writer and avid tennis player Janie McCauley partnered with SQ tennis club member Tim. It was evident that the volunteer skill-set was up to par, but the residents were not slacking. However, in the set match point, Moran’s team scored the victory point, 4-3.
“This was a great experience,” said Moran. “With all of the pre-conceived notions about prison, I thought it would be intimidating and aggressive, but no, it’s just tennis. This is a once in a lifetime chance to see this world.”
The matches between the players and volunteers were all competitive, but they were more than just tennis to McCauley. She had been waiting to come into the prison and play against the club members since early June. She was so determined not to miss this opportunity that she did not allow an injury she had sustained on the outside playing tennis to deter her from doing so inside.
“This is the best experience I can ever imagine,” said McCauley. She surveyed the yard, appreciative of the view, and said, “I just love the activity going on around here. Everybody is doing something with themselves.”
To long-time volunteer Pat Leog, who has been playing tennis for 49 years, the experience of women coming into the men’s prison to compete against them brought him a sense of balance and variety. That was the highlight of the day for him.
“To bring the women in to play the men is the highlight for me,” said Leog.
The matches were off-set because each team playing was paired with a woman who had won her match.