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Wisconsin-Eau Claire head tennis coach Tom Gillman (left) chats with his daughter Katie during a match earlier this season. Now in her final season with the Blugolds, Katie has been coached by her dad for 10 years, spanning the high school and college ranks. (Photo submitted by Theresa Gillman)

Father-daughter combo head into their final chapter

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A decade ago, Tom Gillman stepped down from his role as women’s tennis coach at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to take a similar position at Red Wing High School. More than a step down in level, it was a step up for Gillman and his family, as Tom would get the chance to coach his daughters.

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Today, two of the Gillmans are approaching the end of a book that could read like fiction if it wasn’t for the obvious truths that come with reality. Tom and youngest daughter Katie are closing out her senior season at UW-EC. And through it all, Tom has been the coach and Katie the (mostly) willing student-athlete.

“In a rare instance, I don’t know how often it happens, but I’ve been her coach all through high school and college. I guess we’re gluttons for punishment,” Tom said late last week. “I wasn’t one of those dads that felt like no one else could coach my kids. But in my business, the only way to see them play is to be their coach. I was missing so much of my older daughter’s matches, because if I’m coaching, they’re playing and I miss it. It was an added bonus to be Katie’s coach.”

Said Katie, “It is very rare, because this is my 10th year playing varsity tennis. Being able to have him for that many years is rare and memorable. He’s seen every highlight, and it’s been a great experience because he’s been at every match. He knows everything about my game, and that’s an advantage over other coaches and players. He knows exactly what to say. 

“I love him as my coach because I trust him, and he’s a phenomenal coach. It’s a great thing to come to practice and see the girls, who are great, and also to see my dad. It’s bittersweet (that it’s almost over), but it’s been a great ride.”

The adventure began when Katie was in seventh grade, a young girl hoping to accomplish much on the tennis court. By the time she graduated in 2010, Katie’s name was synonymous with Red Wing girls tennis: six-time letter winner, five-time all-conference member, two-time team MVP, academic all-state award winner and the name at the top of the all-time career wins list.

As successful as Katie was in high school, college athletics are a different breed. Whereas Katie was, usually without a doubt, the best player on her prep team, getting to that point at the next level would be much more difficult. And when she decided to attend UW-EC, things got more complicated.

In the summer of 2010, the UW-EC women’s coach stepped down, leaving the team without a leader. Just a freshman, Katie wrote to the UW-EC athletic director, recommending Tom for the job, who was not told about the letter until after he was hired.

It was a bold move for an athlete who had yet to play for the team.

“We were surprised that, going into her freshman year of college, that she would have enough nerve to do that,” said Theresa Gillman, Katie’s mother and Tom’s wife.

In the time since, the Gillmans have battled through three and-a-half seasons of college tennis all while trying to keep two relationships separate from each other.

“Sometimes, it’s blurred lines,” Katie said. “We’ll goof around in practice, or I’ll say something sassy and, if I wasn’t his daughter, I wouldn’t say that. And it goes both ways. We try to keep tennis at tennis, and go home and be normal. It’s hard.”

“The funny thing is I think I’ve done my best parenting at college for Katie, for whatever reason. She’s stubborn and bull-headed like me. As I’ve gotten to be an older dad, I’ve given opportunities to her and not given her a chance to rebel,” Tom said, laughing at the rebelling. “The benefits are more off the court than on. But the on court stuff has been pretty easy. We see things the same way. She’s not sensitive, she’s tough-minded. We think the same, so I don’t have to say much. And she doesn’t have very many bad matches. I’m lucky that way, so we don’t have to sit down for heart-to-hearts very often.”

The UW-EC women’s tennis season runs through Oct. 27, when the Blugolds will compete in the WIAC championships. After that, there could be a run through the NCAA tournament, but all that is given is the conference showdown.

Whenever it ends, Katie said she will have good memories at her time on the court with Tom.

“It’s going to be very different. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Katie said. “It’s one of the best experiences of my life, growing as an athlete but also as a person. Athletics teach you a lot about life. Not everyone has that opportunity to play 10 years of varsity sport. And I hold that near and dear to my heart.”

Tom, who said he takes his coaching duties “year by year,” isn’t sure what the next step will be. But he does know one thing: Coach Katie has a nice ring to it.

“I kind of joke with her about the fact that she’d be great working with her kids or as a volunteer coach,” Tom said. “I don’t put ambitions on my kids, but she would be very good. She she’s a good mind, she sees the game, she makes the right kind of choices as a competitor. It would be fun to see her coaching a little Katie.”

Told of her father’s comments, Katie laughed. But the realization that coaching is likely in her future was not sudden.

“It’s something I’ve always had on the backburner,” Katie said. “I know I’ll do it eventually. I have all this knowledge that I’ve gained, being the daughter of a coach. I couldn’t see all that knowledge going to waste and not coaching. I’m going into health care administration, so I could definitely see myself as an assistant or as a coach when I’m older.”

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