Gigi Sompayrac is bound for college in the sport her mother, Cathy, also played for the Lady Irish
By Bill Brewer
The circle is now complete. May the circle be unbroken. Knoxville Catholic High School senior Gigi Sompayrac put the finishing touches on that 360-degree journey on Feb. 1 when she signed scholarship papers to play tennis for Anderson University.
The scholarship-signing ceremony witnessed by family and friends was the culmination of years of nurturing instruction and encouragement from her mother, Cathy, who walked a nearly identical path decades ago with one heartbreaking exception: her mother, Mary Catherine Rainwater.
Gigi competes in singles and doubles for KCHS, the No. 1-ranked girls high school tennis team in the nation, and is one of the top returning players. The Fighting Irish are the two-time defending state champs heading into the 2023 season.
As the tennis season gets underway, Gigi won’t have the distraction of deciding where she’s going to college. She is focusing on a competitive schedule of matches in one of the toughest prep divisions in Tennessee that she hopes will lead to a three-peat.
Her cheering section begins with parents Howie and Cathy Sompayrac, but it doesn’t end there. Younger brother Luke, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and a long line of friends, teachers, and other supporters are excited to see Gigi take her tennis game to the next level.
However, the achievement has a much deeper meaning for Gigi’s mother.
God’s plan: a mother-daughter connection
Anderson University is in Anderson, S.C., near Greenville. The Trojans compete in the Division II South Atlantic Conference against 12 other teams. Anderson’s student population is about 4,000.
After considering several schools, even Division I programs, Gigi and her parents settled on Anderson because of the coach and his team. Another incentive is that a close friend from KCHS, Ceci Pumariega, already attends Anderson. In fact, Ceci’s father, Ore Pumariega, who is dean of students at KCHS, introduced Gigi to Anderson.
“He is the first one who brought it up to me. He said, ‘You have to check out Anderson University.’ I visited a few schools and talked to a few coaches. Anderson was the first school I visited, but I wanted to be sure that it was the one I wanted to go to. So, I visited a few others, but in the end, it was Anderson,” said Gigi, who plans to major in kinesiology.
Despite the lure of larger tennis programs, Gigi and her parents agreed Anderson is the best fit.
“I think where she is headed to is a great fit for her. Division II where she is, and the division she’s in, the South Atlantic Conference, is good for her. That conference includes Carson-Newman and LMU. She was looking at a mix of schools,” Mrs. Sompayrac said, noting they considered some Division I schools, but there was concern she wouldn’t get the competitive playing time she needed to develop her game.
“The coach at Anderson, Joey Eskridge, is outstanding. He’s a real developmental coach and sees a lot of potential in Gigi. He will develop her,” Mrs. Sompayrac added. “It’s a good environment.”
Mrs. Sompayrac should know. She developed an interest in tennis as a young girl in the 1980s while attending St. Joseph School, just like Gigi. And she fed that interest while playing for Knoxville Catholic High School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, just like Gigi.
But her life and path to collegiate tennis sustained a devastating blow when she was a 14-year-old KCHS freshman. Her mother was killed in a traffic accident at the age of 39 in November 1988. Mary Catherine Rainwater’s best friend also was killed in the accident.
Mrs. Sompayrac’s older sister, Lisa, was a senior at KCHS at the time and her younger sister, Laurie, was in the fourth grade at St. Joseph School.
However, Mrs. Sompayrac, then Cathy Rainwater, and her sisters persevered thanks to her father, George Rainwater, who worked to fill the absence of his wife and his children’s mother.
Cathy Rainwater’s success on the court attracted the attention of college programs, and she accepted an offer to be a preferred walk-on for the Tennessee Lady Vols tennis team when she graduated from KCHS in 1991. There was anticipation that she would earn a scholarship after her freshman year.
But shoulder reconstruction surgery sidelined her during that first year, and her competitive career was over.
“That forced me out of the sport. But I was very fortunate. My goal was to earn a scholarship for my sophomore year. My coach, Mike Patrick, offered me a full four-year scholarship to remain on the team as the manager. So, I got to be manager for the four years on scholarship. During my junior and senior years, I helped coach as a student assistant,” Mrs. Sompayrac recalled. “It was a great experience. Although I never had the on-court experience as a player, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Little did she know at the time that decades later she would summon all her sports memories from the 1980s and 1990s to guide her daughter—and experience some of what has been missing.
Mrs. Sompayrac cherishes seeing how tennis has come full circle for her—St. Joseph, KCHS, and college—through her daughter. She said she has discussed with Gigi in detail her experiences playing sports at St. Joseph and KCHS and being on a college team. She also has discussed with Gigi losing her mother—Gigi’s grandmother.
“It was such a sudden loss. Not having a mother in high school was very tragic and hard to endure. For me, the beauty and blessing that God has created for me is after having lost my mother at such a young age, I’m now a mother to Gigi, and that has completed my circle. It has filled my void. Tennis is icing on the cake,” Mrs. Sompayrac said.
“What’s amazed me the most, the full circle, is the connection between St. Joseph and Catholic High School, that connection she has had. This has completed the circle for me. Looking back at the loss, my dream was to be a mother. I wanted that mother-daughter relationship, and now I have it. I love it. It’s been the best thing in my life,” she continued.
Gigi explained that she was about 10 years old in fourth grade at St. Joseph when she began playing tennis.
“For tennis, that is a late start. Most people who play tennis start when they are about 2 or 3. But I grew up playing basketball and a lot of different sports. I’m glad I did that because I think a lot of kids get burned out early,” she said. “Since I had a late start, I’m starting to like tennis even more right now. And I’m super excited to go to college and play tennis. I know a lot of girls who are burned out and don’t want to go on to play in college or think that since that’s all they have done they have to go on and play in college. I’m real excited to play my best in college.”
She has grown up playing basketball, running track, and competing some in softball and soccer.
She played basketball for St. Joseph School and then played as a KCHS underclassman.
“That was a great experience, and I’m glad I did it. It did take a little bit of time away from tennis. I tried to do both, but that was a lot. I realized that tennis was my favorite and that I wanted to play in college. So, I thought that I needed to devote all my time to tennis,” Gigi explained.
Icing on the cake
Gigi remembered how her mother introduced her to tennis, initially by hitting tennis balls in the driveway.
“She never forced me to play. She was always like ‘It’s up to you. Whatever you want to do. Whatever makes you happy.’ But then I did show some interest in tennis,” Gigi said.
Gigi shared that at an early age living in Chattanooga she watched her Aunt Sarah play tennis and decided then that the sport was not for her.
“They had a lot of tennis tournaments there, and I would watch her play. It was boiling hot, and I just hated it. I was thinking that I would never play tennis; it’s too hot, the scoring makes no sense. It’s just never going to happen. And here I am,” Gigi said. “Now, I look up to Sarah.”
Mrs. Sompayrac said Gigi was always very athletic and showed “pure talent” for tennis from an early age. But after introducing Gigi to her sport, she could tell her daughter wasn’t too interested.
“I also loved different sports growing up, so I thought that was important for her to have that combination. And that was healthy. So, she went that path, and that was good for her,” Mrs. Sompayrac said. “She’s definitely talented. Gigi’s got it. She’s very, very talented that way.”
Mrs. Sompayrac believes the comparisons between her and her daughter are remarkable.
“Basketball was my main sport, just as it was with Gigi. And basketball was probably my top sport in high school. I started tennis at a very late age as a player. I was around 12,” she said.
“You see where I get it from?” Gigi remarked.
Mrs. Sompayrac, who is a teacher at St. Joseph, volunteered to coach the St. Joseph tennis team over a 10- to 15-year period, although she hasn’t coached for the past two seasons. She also has coached and given lessons at Holston Hills Country Club and the Tyson Family Tennis Center in Knoxville.
Gigi’s father, Howie Sompayrac, also is a member of the faculty at St. Joseph. Gigi’s uncle, Dickie Sompayrac, is the president of Knoxville Catholic High School.
Gigi played one year of tennis for St. Joseph as well as for Sacred Heart Cathedral School. In some sports, middle-school students compete for more than one school as a combined team.
“Gigi jumped out. She progressed really quickly,” Mrs. Sompayrac recalled.
While Mrs. Sompayrac has fully embraced her mom role in Gigi’s athletic life, she acknowledges having to be assertive on occasion in offering advice to Gigi.
Gigi noted that her mother can pivot from mom to coach almost as fast as serving an ace.
They laugh at the thought of Mrs. Sompayrac occasionally coaching from the stands, vocally correcting an error—forced or unforced.
Although her mother introduced her to tennis and has instructed her early in her career, Gigi pointed out that her mother preferred to be a tennis mom and gladly let other tennis coaches instruct her.
“Now, she’ll give me advice. If I’m in a tiebreaker, I’ll go over to her. In a tiebreaker you have a few minutes. She always helps me. She plays the mom role, and that is good,” Gigi said.
Mrs. Sompayrac owns her assertive side when it comes to Gigi’s playing.
“I can hear her say, ‘Gigi, swing through,’” Gigi said laughing.
“But sometimes I’ll say, ‘C’mon Gigi, I know what I’m talking about here,’” Mrs. Sompayrac interjected, laughing also. “Tennis is the hardest sport to watch as the mom-coach. It’s very frustrating and hard, but it’s fun.”
But Mrs. Sompayrac is intent on letting Gigi’s coaches handle the instruction.
“I wanted her to be in the hands of a coach, not for me to be her primary coach. I want to help her with her tennis along the way, but I want to be mom, to be supportive. It was healthier for us and better for her development overall.”
They explained how they spend quite a bit of time together, traveling to out-of-town tournaments. That will wind down as college draws closer.
“We travel a lot to these tournaments. That’s been so much fun, so wonderful. That’s what I’ll miss,” Mrs. Sompayrac said.
Mrs. Sompayrac and Gigi explained that competitive tennis turned into a family affair as many times the entire family loaded up the car and traveled to tournaments, especially when Gigi was younger.
“Oh yeah. I’m dragging my little brother along,” Gigi said smiling. Luke, an eighth-grader at St. Joseph, will be attending KCHS next fall. Like his older sister, Luke also is athletic, according to Mrs. Sompayrac. His favorite sports are basketball and golf. He also plays tennis, and his mother has coached him some. He plays for the St. Joseph tennis team.
And Gigi’s and Luke’s grandfather, George Rainwater, has traveled to see many of the matches.
“He’s a big supporter. He’s been to a lot of matches. And it’s been really nice because he never missed a match of mine. It all ties together. My dad was there for everything for us. And now he’s right there for her,” Mrs. Sompayrac said. “And I just can’t say it enough. Look what God has done. Look how it’s all connected, how it has all unfolded. I couldn’t have dreamed or imagined this. It really is special.”
While Gigi and her parents are excited that the hard work and sacrifice has been rewarded with a college scholarship, Gigi still is trying to get used to the fact she’s playing on the No. 1 girls tennis team in U.S. high school sports. Global tennis-player rating system Universal Tennis Rating recently ranked the Lady Irish as tops in the country going into the 2023 season. The head coach is Rusty Morris, who is assisted by Karen Lorino and Alicia Rojas Haub.
“If you would have told me a long time ago that we would be the No. 1 team in the nation, I would have thought you were kidding,” Gigi said. “I’ve just been excited for high school and getting close to my teammates and having fun.”
She is equally excited to be on the team that is the defending state champion in Division II-AA for two years running.
“It’s so much fun winning it, especially with my team. We have so much fun together. It’s a great group of girls, which makes it even better.”
The 2022 championship team included Maeve Thornton, Lillie Murphy, Eleni Liakonis, Karenna Thurman, Camilla Thurman, Vivian Schroeder, Pauline Schneiter, and Marianna Hurley in addition to Gigi. Joining the team for the 2023 season are Payton Carroll, Lauren Murphy, Logan Connatser, and Grace Ward.
Gigi is aware there is added pressure on the team this season because of the state championships and No. 1 ranking. She and her teammates are expecting other teams to give them a lot of competition.
“I’m glad to be playing in the division we’re in. We have really good opponents, and that makes the wins even better.”
Gigi’s father is most proud of what his daughter has accomplished on her way to competing on a top-ranked team and earning a college scholarship, including being an honor student and a leader of the Irish Ambassadors service organization at school.
“I love the work ethic and the discipline that Gigi has learned during her journey to be the best tennis player she can be. Tennis can be a lonely sport because you don’t compete on a team most of the time, so it takes a special commitment and discipline to become an elite player. I have always told Gigi that it’s the person you become by trying to be a champion, not the trophies, that is the best reward for competing in a sport. With that being said, with these girls attaining the rank of the No. 1 team in the nation, I think it gives them the belief and confidence that they can achieve anything in their life as long as they set their mind to it,” Mr. Sompayrac said.
“I love what a great supporter and cheerleader that Gigi is for her teammates at Catholic. Gigi has always been a selfless and giving person, and she brings out the best in others. The last three years have been an amazing and rewarding part of Gigi’s tennis career, and it makes me feel great that she and her teammates are getting rewarded for their dedication, commitment to tennis and each other, and their hard work. In the end, it’s the friendships, the lifetime memories, and bonds that Gigi has with her amazing teammates, parents, and coaches that means the most to her and us. The championships, rankings, etc., are just icing on the cake,” Mr. Sompayrac added.
In college, Gigi said she wants to focus on developing her identity as a player more and continue increasing her strength and confidence.
When asked what her strengths are, she was curious what her mother would say.
Her mother then lobbed the question back to her.
“I am always going after every single ball. I always run down everything. I would call myself a grinder,” Gigi said. “I use my athleticism and now my strokes to win points.”
“Gigi is tough. She is definitely a grinder, a real scrappy player. She has a great two-hand backhand. Gigi is a far better player than I ever was. She is definitely stronger and more developed. She can sweep me off the court,” Mrs. Sompayrac observed. “Her strokes are so strong. She can hit deep and with a lot of power. I can’t hang with her. She has a beautiful, strong game.”
Mrs. Sompayrac could see Gigi developing into a much stronger player during her freshman year, and she believes the ceiling is high for the KCHS senior.
“I think Gigi’s best tennis is ahead of her,” Mrs. Sompayrac said.
“I definitely have not peaked yet, or even close, because I’ve been working on so many things. I’m really excited to play my best tennis and work incredibly hard in college, so I’m really excited for that. I’ve had an amazing experience in high school. I’ve had so much fun, and we’ve had success, but I’m also excited to continue at Anderson. They’re going to help me grow a lot,” Gigi said.
And so go the circles in life.