National tennis trailblazer inspires during Women Lead Change Dubuque Conference


Katrina Adams

When Katrina Adams was 6, she was forced to attend her brothers’ summer activities as part of a boys club that they were enrolled in while her parents taught summer school.

Every day, she shuffled behind them as they strolled off to tennis practice. Adams sat behind a gate and grasped the fence watching wide-eyed as the tennis ball zoomed back and forth across the court.

She wanted to take a swing as well, but the activity was for children who were at least 9 years old.

“I literally sat outside the fence for two weeks begging my way daily to have an opportunity to go out and play opposed to just sitting there,” she said. “I was much of a tomboy with my brothers and my cousins and always in other sports.”

Finally, Adams was allowed to join the kids on the other side of the fence. When the ball sailed over the net heading straight in her direction, she was ready.

“Once I got the opportunity, I went out and struck the ball over the net into the court the very first time,” she said. “I loved the feeling of the ball on my racquet.”

Adams delivered one of four keynote speeches Thursday during the Women Lead Change Dubuque Conference, held virtually this year. She spoke to attendees about her career as an athlete as well as her time as president of United States Tennis Association.

In 2019, the Cedar Rapids-based conference rebranded from Iowa Women Lead Change to expand its reach to women across the country. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the conference to find a new way to spread the speakers’ messages. A total of 330 people tuned in for the conference.

Adams spoke about her path and the challenges that women face.

“Too often we are judged — as women coming into a room, we are already judged that ‘They can’t do that’ or ‘Why are they here?’ or ‘How did they get that?’” Adams said. “As opposed to recognizing us for the brains we have and the hard work we put in to get to that level.”

After her initial day on the courts when she was 6, Adams went on to practice daily, compete in tournaments and eventually turned the hobby into a career when she joined the Women’s Tennis Association. She competed for 12 years and won 20 career doubles titles. After retiring from the sport, Adams became the first Black person and youngest person to serve as the president of the United States Tennis Association.

Kaylee Starkey said in an email that she attended the virtual conference to network with other women and gain experience as she prepares for graduation.

“I am a senior at the University of Dubuque and looking at life after college, so I thought it would be a great way to network and learn more about other women who are leaders,” she said.

Shannon Steffke attended the seminar from her home in Sioux Falls, S.D. She said her supervisor promotes professional and personal development, so Steffke decided to check out the conference.

“I love hearing from women about their journeys and about what’s worked for them,” she in an email. “Hearing their stories and learning about their experiences is always motivating and inspiring. With COVID, I think this is even more necessary. I work from home part time right now, and in the office with a smaller team part time. Because of that, it’s easy for me to feel not connected. It’s easy for me to feel stagnant. It’s easy for me to feel not motivated. But these opportunities— even though it’s at a computer — put a little spark in my drive.”

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