The Story of Mitchelle Lake and the Anguilla Tennis Academy
Very few people fully grasp the ingenuity, sacrifice, sweat, tears, passion, and drive required to turn a dream into a reality. Mitchelle Lake, businessman and philanthropist does.
In Blowing Point, Anguilla, there is a beautifully designed building with manicured lawns surrounded by perfectly maintained state-of-the-art, world-class tennis courts. Imprinted boldly on the building are the words Anguilla Tennis Academy. Indeed, the word ‘Academy’ aptly describes this institution which was founded in 1996. The Anguilla Tennis Academy (ATA) is more than just tennis. It serves as a vehicle to reach and empower children to help them become responsible citizens in their community.
In the last 27 years, over 5000 children have benefitted from ATA programmes, thirteen (13) children have received tennis athletic scholarships to prestigious Division II schools in the United States and numerous other students who attended the Anguilla Tennis Academy hold Tennis Pro, Assistant Tennis Pro and Hitting Partner positions at top local hotels and villas and at the Anguilla Tennis Academy itself.
An organization of this magnitude and with proven longevity did not just appear. Behind this building and this movement is a story of ehow one man’s dream became a shared vision. It is a story of how Mitchelle “Mitch” Lake, a son of the soil, used tennis as a vehicle to make a difference in Anguilla both socially and economically. It is a story that exemplifies how the cause was greater than the cost.
It is my honour to document and share the story of Mitchelle Lake and the Anguilla Tennis Academy in a powerful two-part series. I hope that this story inspires people to dream bigger and to say if Mitch could, then I can.
Like all stories, we will start at the beginning but remember that this story is still being written. Congratulations to Mitchell Lake and the Anguilla Tennis Academy for turning 27 years this summer. I look forward with anticipation to what will be accomplished in the next twenty-seven.
A Child’s Interest and Passion Meet an Opportunity
At eleven (11) years old, Mitch was interested in playing tennis. At the time, not many persons were playing tennis in Anguilla, particularly in the junior category. There was one tennis court located at the Ruthwill Auditorium in the Valley area at the time but without any training, it made little sense for Mitch to utilize that court.
An opportunity to play tennis regularly presented itself through Mr. Eric Martineau, a retired pilot from Scotland and his wife Isabella who owned a villa with a tennis court next to the former Mariner’s hotel in Sandy Ground. The couple invited Anguillians interested in tennis to play on their tennis court from 9 am-12noon on Saturday mornings. Mitch took advantage of this opportunity to gain experience in the sport.
Mr. Martineau, being a retired pilot, also used the opportunity to quiz and educate the children on aspects of geography including capitals, populations, and general knowledge from around the world. It was a unique experience for attendees where they learnt the sport and got an education at the same time.
Mitch enjoyed watching Andre Agassi play and his passion for the sport was directly influenced by this legendary player. He wanted to emulate his idol, wore colourful clothes, and bought colourful strings for his tennis racquet. He was dedicated to the sport on those Saturday mornings and Mr. Martineau saw his passion and commitment and took a keen interest in him.
Mitch’s parents did not really understand nor were interested in tennis. Mitch learned from an early age that where there is a will, there is a way. He hitchhiked from the Forest to Sandy Ground for tennis lessons. Mr. Martineau arranged with Henry Phillipe, a former tennis coach at Malliouhana Hotel, to give Mitch private tennis lessons on holidays and during his free time at Malliouhana. Mr. Martineau recognizing that Mitch lacked transportation began to pick him up and drop him home after the private tennis sessions.
Mitch developed a bond with the Martineau’s outside of tennis and would visit and share how he was progressing in school and about his tennis dreams and aspirations. Their relationship continued to strengthen over time.
When Mitch graduated from this tennis programme and Mr. Martineau could no longer teach tennis, Mitch decided to continue the noble work he started. It was this seed, that later led to the blossoming of the Anguilla Tennis Academy.
Now a Teen, Mitchelle Lake’s Next Right Step
Mitch successfully played in a few local tournaments and knew he wanted to further his development in tennis. He recognized the only way that goal could be achieved was to attend University on a tennis scholarship.
He graduated from the Albena Lake Hodge Comprehensive School with ten (10) subjects and had the opportunity to further his education at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Barbados. He declined this opportunity as UWI did not have a tennis programme and would not help him to achieve his goal. His parents could not afford to send him to University, but he stood firm on the belief that where there is a will, there is a way.
After graduation, Mitch took a position at Cap Juluca as a tennis attendant for about US$4 an hour. His job at the hotel was to sweep the tennis courts, prepare the tennis facilities for guests to play, answer phones and book tennis appointments. This was a decision that many people did not understand but Mitch had a plan.
Brian Young, the General Manager at the time was curious as to why a smart young man like Mitch would be a tennis attendant. Mitch’s response was,
“I am here because this is my opportunity to get to College in the USA. If I want to go to college on a tennis scholarship, I need to be in an environment that will help me develop and afford me the opportunity to get to the next level as my parents cannot afford to send me to University. I only intend to do this job for six months because I am going to school. This is just a stop in the process to get me to College.”
Mitch knew he needed to be in the tennis world to fulfill his dream. Chris Wade from Dallas was the tennis pro and Mitch’s boss at the time. Mr. Wade saw and liked Mitch’s work ethic, diligence, and dedication. He also knew Mitch from Central Baptist church and saw his involvement in school activities before his graduation. He made a deal with Mitch that if Mitch booked him about eight (8) lessons a day, he would train him for free and get him a tennis scholarship.
Mitch seized this offer and opportunity and became the best salesperson. When Mr. Wade came to work in the morning, he had four lessons booked and Mitch ensured that another three or four lessons were on the schedule for him in the afternoon.
Mitch was also well-liked by the guests, and they admired the immaculate way he kept the facilities. He received enormous tips ranging from US$300 to US$1000. Though the guests would leave tips for him in an envelope at checkout, Mitch always told them he was not interested in the money per se but in going to University. In a true testament to his likability, many influential guests willingly wrote letters of recommendation for Mitch for College.
The Beginning of a Relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television (BET)
It is here at Cap Juluca that Mitch met Mr. Robert Johnson and his wife former owners of Black Entertainment Television (BET). They also became important contributors and supporters in the early years of the Anguilla Tennis Academy.
Mitch tells the story below fondly about how their relationship started.
Chris Wade provided an opportunity for Sean Romney and Mitch to play tennis in Bangkok, Thailand for a month. Mr. Richard Branson of Virgin Records and Bob Johnson of Black Entertainment Television (BET) were both staying at Cap Juluca at the time, and both were intrigued by Mitch’s story about wanting to develop in tennis and get a tennis scholarship.
Upon learning about his trip to Thailand, Mr. Branson offered to have Mitch fly for free on the routes of the trip that his planes flew, and Mr. Johnson would fund the remainder of the trip. However, when Mr. Johnson realized that this was Mitch’s first trip outside of Anguilla, he decided to pay for the entire round-trip to Bangkok, Thailand to reduce transfers or any logistical problems or any worry for Mitch’s parents. BET funded both Sean Romney and Mitch’s trip and this is how the relationship with BET began.
Mrs. Johnson asked Mitch what the trip to Thailand was about. Mitch told her he hoped to get a scholarship while he was there. Mrs. Johnson continued the conversation by asking Mitch what would happen if he did not get a scholarship.
Mitch jokingly replied, “I guess I will see you here when you return on vacation next December.”
Mr. Robert Johnson then said these life-changing words to Mitch, “Call a school, find out a price, send it to me and we will pay for you for four years to go to college.”
Another Plot Twist in Mitch’s Journey to University
Mitch’s story of how he went to University, and specifically to Gardner-Webb University on a tennis scholarship continues with another plot twist and another influential person who was added to his network.
Mr. Buck Orchard at the time was the number one (1) ranked player in North Carolina in the 70 and over male category. He was an amazing player and was staying at a guest house and wanted to play tennis and hit balls. Because of his age and because Mitch was learning so much from him, Mitch told him he could not charge him. Mitch played with him for a week.
When he was leaving the island, Mr. Orchard told Mitch he heard he was hoping to get a scholarship to go to University. He told him to apply to Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs North Carolina and he would send a note. Buck Orchard was a benefactor at Gardner-Webb. Mitch was given a tennis scholarship from the Buck Orchard Scholarship fund and Mr. Johnson from BET paid for the remainder of his University costs.
Mitch benefitted even further as Mr. and Mrs. Orchard became Mitch’s adoptive parents while he was at University in North Carolina.
He shared this inspiring sentiment,
“I took a chance even though I had ten subjects. Placing myself in an environment which would allow me to meet the right people, have access to a tennis pro who could teach me the right techniques and help me get to camps where I could develop my game. That gamble that I took worked out. It wasn’t six months before I was off to University on a tennis scholarship all because I was in the right place, at the right time, having the right attitude, promoting oneself, building a network of friends, sharing my story and passion, having persons embracing that passion and wanting to see me succeed, paved the way for me to realise my dream.”
That pathway that was created for me (fully funded university, uniforms, racquets, shoes, camps, travel and more). I said to whom much is given, much is expected and wanted other Anguillians to receive similar opportunities and or experiences.
That is why Sean Romney and I came home from college our Freshman year and started the Anguilla Tennis Academy.”
Taking a job as a tennis attendant at Cap Juluca was a gamble that worked out for Mitchell Lake. It was indeed the right next step on his journey.
The Seed Planted in Sandy Ground Blossomed with the Founding of the Anguilla Tennis Academy
Mitch felt compelled to continue the tennis services Mr. Martineau started by providing the opportunity to learn tennis at no cost to Anguillian children.
He shared, I believe strongly in the notion “To whom much is given, much is expected. In the summer of 1996, during my first year at Gardner-Webb University, Sean Romney and I, both recipients of Tennis Athletic Scholarships returned to Anguilla to start the Anguilla Tennis Academy.”
The first five years of the Anguilla Tennis Academy Summer tennis camp, the children played for free on the two tennis courts at the Ronald Webster Park. Persons who attended the tennis camps would remember the nicknames given to the tennis courts – Dungeon and Palace tennis courts and the ‘Olympics at the end of the morning session’ and the enthusiastic shouts and cheers of ‘Winner! Winner!”
Through Mitch’s relationships, the tennis camps were funded by Black Entertainment Television and local businesses. Mitch saw how tennis provided an opportunity for him through a tennis scholarship and he wanted to provide similar opportunities for others.
The little seed that was planted in one of their students on those Saturday mornings playing tennis in Sandy Ground went from a little programme to the development of a world-class tennis academy, from students learning about geography to traveling the world and getting a tertiary education and bringing back people to Anguilla who can uplift and develop Anguilla as a whole.
The Early Years and Growth of the Anguilla Tennis Academy
In the first year of the programme in 1996, there were thirty-five children who participated in the summer camp with only three racquets which were passed between the children during the sessions. In the second year, there were seventy-five children and more funding and sponsorships rolled in from local businesses and international sponsors. By the third year, the numbers grew to 150 students and the ATA started to hire buses to take the children to Cocoloba and Malliohana hotels to play on the courts there.
In 1997, the second year of the tennis programme, Mitch invited his teammates from Gardner-Webb University to be coaches during the summer camp and every year since then coaches, college players and renowned coaches and players have participated in the ATA annual Summer camp.
The ATA celebrates 27 years this summer and impressively Mitch has never missed a summer. From the early days of the programme, he saw how excited the children were to have the programme funded by BET, transported by buses to the hotels to play and their excitement to learn a new sport. He knew that it was something the community needed – an opportunity over summer for children to have an experience through tennis.
What started with humble beginnings, a little spark caught fire and blossomed into something special because it was pure.
A Promise Kept – A World-Class Facility for World-Class Children
One summer, it was raining, and Mitch and the children were sheltering under the pavilion on the James Ronald Webster Park. Mitch told the children,
“There are so many of you that are interested in tennis, I think I am going to build you a facility.” Everyone shouted, “Yeoh!”
Mitch was simply joking and passing time. The following summer the children asked him about the facility, and he realized you cannot promise children something if you are not going to do it.
Mitch decided to go out on a limb and try to make it happen. He knew he needed three components to build a facility – land, a plan and money.
His enterprising nature, diligence and determination made it possible for Mitch to achieve all three components.
On May 23rd, 2008, the Anguilla Tennis Academy in Blowing Point, a world-class tennis facility with six lighted tennis courts, opened its doors to the delight of all the children who had waited in anticipation for this moment.
Advantage ATA! Advantage Mitch!
Up Next – The Building of the Anguilla Tennis Academy
In part two (2) of this story, we will delve into the intriguing and motivating story of how Mitch, now in his early twenties, was able to secure drawings and renderings valued at US$300000, land valued at US$300,000 and US$125,000 in donations to start building the Anguilla Tennis Academy. This inspirational story continues with lessons Mitch learned over his 27 years journey with the Anguilla Tennis Academy. You do not want to miss the continuation of this story!
Until then, cheers and congratulations to the Anguilla Tennis Academy on its 27th anniversary in July.