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Game, Set and Match
Ex-tennis champion and TV broadcaster Helene Pelletier says faith keeps her at the top of her game.

For former tennis champion Helene Pelletier, the road to success was not easy. "My father was the first of his family to leave the farm and live in the big city—Quebec City," says Helene. "My parents grew up poor, so they wanted to make sure that we had better opportunities."

Helene interviews Jennifer Capriati
Helene interviews Jennifer Capriati for Reseau des Sports, French ESPN.

A wild kid with a lot of energy, Helene loved sports. "I thought about sports 24 hours a day," she says. "everything else was a chore I had to get through."

As encouragement, Helene and her sister Marie were sent to Moss Lake Camp in New York State, U.S.A. "the camp specialized in horseback riding, but water-skiing became my passion," says Helene. "Ken and Roland Hillier, world champion water-skiiers, were our instructors.

At the end of her second summer, Roland asked Helene's father to move her to Florida so that she could train with him. "I was 12 years old," she recalls, "and my father did not agree to it. I would be such a pest about it. One day he was so tired of me getting on his case that he said: 'Pick another sport and I'll send you to Florida later.'"

Helene figured that tennis was as good a choice as any. "To be honest, I was looking at something that would get me to Florida. Tennis came by default, not out of pure passion. When I started to play in Quebec, there were only two indoor courts in the whole city. I played twice a week in doubles, but I was far from being able to compete professionally."

In 1977 Helene's father kept his promise. At 17, she entered Rollins College in Florida. The tennis team at Rollins was among the top five at the university level. "We were in the first division, beating universities such as the University of Florida, Stanford, UCLA. Work hard, play hard—that was my motto. And I did that pretty well. I drank a lot, loved the boys, listened to rock'n'roll and played sports."

Helene would play tennis all day, party all night, then get up and do it all again. "It was a destructive mentality that was unfortunately part of my makeup. I hung around people who thought the same way. I was looking for love in all the wrong places and walking down the wrong road."

Then the Lord sent Helene an angel named Wendy White. "She was No. 1 at the university level and ranked in the top 20 in the world," says Helene. "She had all the sponsors, was good looking and better than anybody else. People loved her. She was a star."

Wendy also had a different way of doing things. "Whenever the team went on a trip, we would party like crazy. We would drink beer in tennis ball cans, get drunk and just laugh." The only one who would not participate was Wendy.

"Wendy would sit at the back of the bus and read her Bible. Every time I looked at her she seemed distressed. She saw that we were destroying the gift that God has given us. She would look at us with sadness, and it would bother me like you can't even imagine."

One Saturday night, Helene was walking on campus half drunk when she came face-to-face with Wendy. She said, "Helene, would you like to come to church with me tomorrow?"

"I had to say yes," Helene recalls. "Everybody wanted to be with Wendy. It was an honour to be with such a star. I thought maybe we would it a few balls together and have lunch."

At that point in her life, Helene had left religion far behind. "The last time I had gone to church, it was a very big building in Quebec City. There were maybe 50 people. It was very quiet."

When Wendy took Helene to Calvary Assembly Church in Winter Park, Florida, she got the surprise of her life. "I was expecting 100 people," Helene recalls. "When we arrived, there were 8,000 people dancing, singing and having a good time. I thought: 'Oh my gosh, what is this place? What are these people so happy?'

Helene Pelletier
Helene Pelletier

"I realized what I had been doing with my drinking was covering up the pain in my heart. I kept waking up with a hangover and thinking: 'Why are you doing this to yourself?' The next day I would star again. Drinking appeared to make me this fun person, the life of the party—but I was really looking for love."

When the pastor at Calvary Assembly Church invited people to come forward to pray at the altar, Helene practically ran to the front. "I knew something had happened," she says. "I did not know who the Holy Spirit was, but I felt Him clinging to my heart. I felt the love of God filling me, and it was scary how intense that was."

Helene's life underwent a transformation. "I stopped doing many negative things. I didn't want to be around the same people. I started to discover Christian music, which really encouraged me.

"Other things took longer. The Lord asked me to give up alcohol, and that took a long time. I got sidetracked. I met this great guy and ended up leaving God's way for about three years. It did not work out. Then I came back to the Lord."

Helene's pro-tennis career started after her third year in university. "For two years I played, but I was getting hurt all the time." Helene came back to finish school in 1983, graduating with a degree in communications and theatre and then returned to professional tennis. In 1985 she achieved her greatest victory, defeating Martina Navratilova in doubles.

A week later, she hurt her ankle. The doctors told Helene that her tennis career was over. "It took a year to heal, and I wanted to come back to prove everybody wrong. I didn't want it to end like that. My specialty was doubles. I had my place on top. But when I was gone for a year my partner found someone else to play with. It's a very precious thing to have a good partner. I couldn't find anyone else and by then I'd lost too much quickness." Helene quit professional tennis in 1986.

During the mid-80s, television networks started to look for women sportscasters. "CBC asked me to do sports commentary, and as I sat in that chair, I felt that's what God wanted me to do." Helene still works for Reseau des Sports, French ESPN.

In February 2002 Helene accepted a position at Crossroads Christian Communications and moved to Burlington, Ontario, to host and produce Rise and Shine. Later she became a full-time reporter and producer for 100 Huntley Street, helping other Christians tell their stories.

Juggling two careers is a difficult task. "Tennis has a 50-week season. As a commentator, I have to keep up with changes in technique, and so on. It's a full-time job. But I love to see the way 'God can.'"

Helene is on a constant search for stories of God's grace. "God can do such amazing things with the 100 Huntley Street interviews. People are willing to open up and share. I cry over it. People's lives are a precious thing. God anointed me to bring a piece of eternity into peoples' homes.

"Reporting on tennis scores can be exciting, but to me that kind of success is temporary. Telling the personal stories of how people come to know Jesus Christ—that is for eternity."

Helena Smrcek is a freelance writer based in Milton, Ontario.

Originally published in Faith and Friends, May 2004.
www.salvationarmy.ca/magazines/faithandfriends/

 

 
 
 
 

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