The Light Keeps Burning
The light first began blinking when former University of Notre Dame tennis player Monica Robinson was a child.
“My parents were and always will be exemplary when it comes to helping others,” she says.
“My mother is a pediatrician and she taught my little brother and me to help people in need, sometimes some of her patients. My mom would say, ‘Today we’re going to take this kid to a movie or take so and so to dinner or take this family rotisserie chicken. And we’re going to go talk to them and spend time with them.’”
Then the light burned brighter when Robinson came to Notre Dame.
“It’s the giving side of Notre Dame,” she says. “Everyone here is so generous. When I became a freshman at Notre Dame I realized—wow—there are so many opportunities, so many different ways to reach out and serve as a leader.”
Then it burned white hot when Robinson and her Irish tennis teammates met Sophia as part of the Fighting Irish Fight for Life program in which Notre Dame athletic teams “adopt” local pediatric cancer patients.
“At the end of my freshman year I was invited to a Rosenthal Leadership Academy retreat, I interviewed for SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Council) and that’s when they told our team that we were going to have someone new as part of the Fighting Irish Fight for Life program.”
That turned out to be Sophia, a then-four-year-old from Goshen, Indiana, who is afflicted with leukemia. The Irish tennis team “signed” her to a letter of intent at the annual signing party that adds youngsters to Notre Dame squads.
“I still remember the flyer we all received, with the picture of her lying in a bed of leaves in the fall,” says Robinson.
“She’s adorable, she’s a little ball of sunshine. Her family is the perfect description of a selfless, joyful family.
“Sophia came to our matches. We were able to visit her in Goshen and see her at her school, at church. We went for ice cream, and we went to the movies.
“We took her to basketball and baseball games. That was fun because, unlike tennis matches, we were able to sit in the stands and enjoy the fun things that come with sporting events—buying candy and pretzels and cheering on the Irish.
“She just fit right in, and she started playing tennis.
“She is so strong. From the outside you would never know what was going on with her. She always had a smile and she was the sweetest little thing.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity for these kids. They feel so special, and yet it’s reciprocal. The teams were humbled and it really helped me put things in perspective.
“If you thought you were having a tough day in the classroom or on the court, then you would see her and see this little girl fighting leukemia. And I know this little girl was a fighter.
“She’s been in remission for the past year, and I’m so happy for her and her family because they’ve been through a lot. She’s going to elementary school now and she’s doing great.”
Robinson already has made great use of her Notre Dame double major in Spanish and marketing. She self-published a book in Spanish that she both wrote and illustrated—and she has plans for more publishing ventures.
“So ‘Tommy the Little Kitten’ was actually a book I did for a writing class in eighth grade,” says Robinson. “I cut construction paper and typed it out and I actually had the physical book.
“Then in the fall of my senior year at Notre Dame I took a fiction writing class and that kind of got the juices flowing again. When I was home for Christmas break I did some spring cleaning and found that book I did in eighth grade. It had just been sitting in my closet.
“So I looked up some self-publishing companies and found that Amazon had a site. I checked it out and got it up there in January. I thought it was really a cool way to get it to kids, to be able to read to kids and get kids to read it. It gives them confidence and helps them be happy with who they are.
“That’s the theme of the book—owning any insecurities you have. You are who you are, you are unique and you should be proud of who you are.
“It was really fun for me because I love writing and I love art and it put those two together. It was kind of tricky putting it into an online version to have it printed on demand – I had to take pictures of my actual art and use Photoshop.
“And luckily I was a marketing major so I advertised through Facebook and social media. I worked through lots of family members and went to small businesses. It’s still a process because the children’s market is the hardest market to break into. I was able to get it to a few teachers, and some friends and family members have told me some stories of using it and that’s very humbling.”
Robinson capped her senior season in South Bend in 2016-17 when, for the first time in the history of the Notre Dame women's program, the Irish could boast a national Intercollegiate Tennis Association/Arthur Ashe Sportsmanship and Leadership Award winner.
The ITA/Arthur Ashe award is given annually to men's and women's players across all divisions who have exhibited outstanding sportsmanship and leadership as well as scholastic, extracurricular and tennis achievements.
Robinson won 134 combined singles and doubles matches in her four years at Notre Dame, including a 73-48 record in singles. She ranked as high as 10th nationally in doubles, qualifying for the 2015 NCAA Doubles Championship while being named to the All-ACC third team that same season. In 2017, she was honored as an All-ACC second-team selection, as well as receiving the ITA Most Improved Player Award for the Midwest Region. Robinson also held one of three captain spots in 2016-17, and she was named to the 2017 All-Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Team.
Robinson in May 2017 won two of Notre Dame's most prestigious awards at the annual O.S.C.A.R.S. ceremony: the Francis Patrick O'Connor Award and the Byron V. Kanaley Award. The O'Connor Award is given to the student-athletes who best display the total embodiment of the true spirit of Notre Dame as exemplified by their contributions and inspiration to their teams, while the Kanaley Award goes to the senior monogram athletes who have been most exemplary as students and leaders.
Beginning her freshman season, Robinson steadily worked her way up the lineup until reaching the top singles and doubles spots in 2016-17, working through injuries and adversity along the way. In addition to her leadership roles within the team, she served as a vice president of Pangborn Hall and as a Dream Team member with Madison Elementary School.
But Robinson (from Valley Center, California) has not given up her tennis dream.
“I went to Belgium over the summer and played a series of pro tournaments and played one in Ireland, and I think I did pretty well,” she says. “But I kind of overdid it with my shoulder and ended up with a partial tear of my labrum.
“But I believe God has a plan for everyone and if you trust him and allow yourself to be in an unknown environment opportunities will present themselves. So I had to put a pause on my pro tennis to take some time off and do rehab—and that’s when the head women’s coach for Texas Tech (Todd Petty who recruited Robinson in her junior tennis days) reached out and said they’d love to have me join their staff.
“I told them I couldn’t hit with the girls, but it’s still been a wonderful experience. I was not really sure what to expect, but the girls on the team have been great, taking whatever advice I had. And I’ve learned so much from these coaches. It’s been eye-opening, seeing it from a different side. It’s translated back to my own game as I see things differently and understand strategy a little differently as you see how these girls deal with points.
“The emotional side of it is exhausting – you put your heart out there because you want the most for these girls. When they lose it feels bad and when they win it’s amazing and you feel a part of it.”
Robinson traveled to South Africa in November to play a series of three pro tournaments, and she hopes to gain a world ranking.
“I want to seek out my dream and see if I can pick up where I left off,” she says. “I love sports and I hope I can continue to be active and be the best I can be. And I want to see these (Texas Tech) girls compete this spring—they’re seventh in the nation and they have a chance to have a great year.”
No matter Robinson’s on-court accomplishments, Irish women’s tennis coach Jay Louderback was struck by her relationship with Sophia:
“Monica’s time spent with Sophia was amazing. She accompanied Sophia to several medical treatments and attended Sophia’s birthday parties.
“Sophia and her parents were incredibly thankful for Monica’s commitment over the last four years. Every time Sophia attended our matches and saw Monica, her eyes lit up. You could see on her face how much the time Monica spent with her meant.
“I think this was Monica’s most important accomplishment in her time at Notre Dame.”
Louderback also loved Robinson’s approach to sportsmanship.
“In my 38 years of coaching college tennis, Monica was as fair and honest on her (line) calls as any student-athlete I have coached. She was once overruled by an umpire on one of her calls (which actually was correct). After the match Monica apologized to her opponent for the overrule.
“It sounds like a small thing, but it was very telling.”
Robinson will continue to give tennis a whirl, and she may end up heading to graduate school at some point.
But, she adds, “My mother always said the greatest thing you can do is give your time and love. And I’m not going to forget that.”