Jul. 28—Although he moved away from his home state a decade ago, Colin Gillam describes himself as a “born and raised Alaskan.”
He grew up in Anchorage, where he found and fostered a passion for playing tennis and was a standout at Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School — back when it was just East High — from 1996 to 2000.
There weren’t any official state tournaments back when he was in high school but the Thunderbirds did win regions in three of his four years. The year they didn’t win it all, they came in second per his recollection.
Once his days as a player concluded after he graduated from Portland State University, Gillam didn’t waste much time getting into coaching.
His first coaching job was for Anchorage Parks and Recreation when he was in high school, and after playing Division I tennis in college, he started coaching full-time in 2005.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a career, so I came back up here and started coaching at the Alaska Club as a certified pro, and one thing kind of led to another from there,” Gillam said.
He spent a couple of years as the director of tennis at the Alaska Club and eight years as a coach at Dimond High, and is now a nationally recognized coach.
His official titles now include USPTA Elite Pro, PPR Pickleball Pro, USTA High Performance Coach, and Director of Racquets at the Mountain Park Racquet and Fitness Club in Oregon, where he now lives.
This week, Gillam wrapped up four days of free coaching clinics, working with players of varying skill levels in Anchorage and the Valley.
“I had an opportunity through a family foundation that had some funds to get me up here and offer these clinics, workshops, free of charge, and try to give back to the community and get some kids on the court,” he said.
His drive to become a coach came from a combination of his love for the game and wanting to give back to the next generation of tennis players in Alaska and beyond. He counted longtime local tennis stalwart Cathy Tracy and her husband, Gregg Tracy, as mentors.
“I had a lot of really good role models and that made it easy,” he said.
Once he entered the realm of coaching, offers to advance in the profession kept presenting themselves.
“I’ve worked with national juniors, I’ve coached two national junior teams in the 14s and 16s,” he said. “When I was coaching here, I worked with close to almost three dozen players that went on to play college tennis from Alaska.”
He doesn’t get to come back as often as he’d like; prior to this month’s trip, he last visited Alaska in summer 2019.
Gillam arrived in Alaska on Saturday and immediately got to work in his first clinic, where he met with 21 players from Mat-Su schools such as Colony, Palmer and Wasilla for two hours on the new tennis courts out in Palmer.
From Sunday through Tuesday, he returned to his old stomping grounds and held morning sessions for open and junior-varsity-level players before mainly working with varsity-level players in the afternoons.
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When he moved out of state, there were nine indoor tennis courts. Now there are just four, so he didn’t know what to expect in terms of turnout.
“It’s really cool to see we got 27 players (on the last day),” Gillam said. “When I put this together, I didn’t know if I’d get 10, just knowing that the amount of indoor courts had been cut down by more than half.”
He believes that the lack of indoor tennis courts in a cold-weather state like Alaska has contributed to the lack of depth and talent at the youth level, compared to when he was growing up and prior to his departure.
Nevertheless, there were still players from varying age groups that attended his clinics this past week who impressed him.
South Anchorage’s Aaron Griffin is the reigning high school state champion for boys singles and has known Gillam since he was kid.
“He was an old coach of mine and I just wanted to see how he’s doing and see a bunch of new kids,” Griffin said.
Griffin is “really excited” for the upcoming season, which will officially get underway next month, and wanted to refine his skills and test himself against some solid competition.
“It’s really good because you can discover what your real weaknesses are against those lower players and then fix them, and they’re also getting better at the same time,” he said. “Everybody is improving and it’s a really good atmosphere.”
Griffin, who will be entering his senior season, was one-third of what Gillam called “the Trio of Destruction” along with Will Sedwick of West and Ken Motton of Colony. Sedwick was part of the 2022 state runner-up mixed doubles pairing, and Motton was part of the 2022 fifth-place pairing in boys doubles.
Even though Terry Sapp’s first day at the clinic was its last day, he carried himself with the eagerness, confidence and the swagger of someone who had been there from Day One.
He’s only been playing tennis for three years, and he doesn’t receive formal coaching, but was receptive to Gillam’s training and wisdom.
“I love tennis,” Sapp said. “I love the energy and excitement of rushing to that ball.”
The 12-year-old is homeschooled, and tennis is both his gym class and favorite recreational activity.
Some good advice he received from Gillam was how to improve his use of spin when he strikes the ball.
“He is really good at tennis and is really good at teaching us,” Sapp said.
After having so much fun learning about the sport, Sapp hopes to follow in Griffin’s footsteps and stay in contact with Gillam as well, and attend future clinics when he comes back into town.
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