Once a bear, always a bear: Madara returns
When Paige Madara was a first-year at Washington University in 2009, she set a goal for the end of her tennis career with the Bears: to play in the Elite Eight at the NCAA Championships. During her first year, that goal felt a long way away, but by her senior season, she was on the cusp of making it a reality. Surrounded by a strong team that had already secured four victories in the Sweet 16, Madara had the chance to clinch an Elite Eight appearance with the victory. She delivered, finishing her career as a student athlete by accomplishing that long-time goal. Now, as the newly appointed head coach for the Washington University women’s tennis team, she brings with her both experience and high hopes to the team.
After playing at the University from 2009-2013, Madara coached at Washington and Lee College before heading to Grinnell College as the head coach for both the men and women’s tennis teams. Now, she is bringing back skills that she learned through being a part of the other programs. Being surrounded by different department members, coaches and players taught her how to communicate with all the different pieces of the program, from student athletes to the administration. That experience made Madara an appealing choice. “When someone is a student of the game and has expertise and enthusiasm, that’s a scary combination,” Director of Athletics Anthony Azama said.
When Kelly Stahlhuth, the Bears’ women’s tennis head coach for 15 years, stepped down this summer, Azama created a search committee to create a deep, diverse and qualified pool of candidates to replace her. The University then hosted numerous interviews, including the players for the final four. “I was really impressed with the amount that my own voice was taken into consideration in the process,” said senior Ally Persky, a captain on the team. “When I shared my opinions about the candidates, people were really listening.”
While the committee made a recommendation, ultimately the choice lay with Azama. He said the mission was to identify a coach whose values aligned with those of the athletic department and then to determine whether that coach would make Wash. U. better. “I know we found that person [in Madara] to fit that build and lead our women’s tennis program,” he said. “You want to hire people who see Wash. U. as a destination, not a stepping stool. That brings a different level of energy, a different level of focus, a different level of commitment.”
What made Madara stand out in the interviews was her plan, her values and her ability to develop student athletes holistically. Azama also emphasized that the fact that she was an alum was “ not an automatic slam dunk—she still had to go through the process,” but that it would help her relatability for the players.
Persky emphasized that because Madara was a Wash. U. alum, she already understood the players’ priorities and ambitions. A good relationship between Madara and the three senior captains would be essential to understanding the team dynamic and culture. “I’m happy to take on that extra responsibility, if it means that the team is better for it,” Persky said.
Laurel Wanger, another senior captain, felt that there was another layer of trust between coaches and players since, as an alum, Madara understands the team culture. “She’s not just this random person who came to our school—she’s lived in St. Louis and she has family ties here,” Wanger said.
Wanger said that as a captain, one of her main goals is to create a good team culture and environment, especially for the incoming players. Whether they will compete in the spring is still uncertain, but in the meantime the Bears will continue to practice. “My goal for the spring would just be to have a season, I guess,” Wanger said. “But ideally, it would be a good season.”
Since her official start on Monday, Madara says she has hit the ground running. She has goals for the season, but she said the first step is to get to know her players and their values on an individual level. “The catchphrase that we used when I was a student athlete was ‘once a bear, always a bear,'” she said. “I felt that whether I was on campus or away from campus, and to bring it and live it every day is something I’m looking forward to.”