The sun gently filled the valleys and niches of the bronze figure, illuminating an otherwise modest metallic form with spectacular brilliance. The long angular rays caressed the face of a smiling boy, skillfully configured by an ancient bronze-casting technique.
The reflection of the figure sparkled in the eyes of legendary Men’s Tennis Coach Steve Wilkinson as he gazed at the bronze statue. Wilkinson proudly explained the message of the sculpture which was carefully crafted by Nicholas Legeros ’77.
“The sculpture begins with the three crowns, embodied in the essence of the boy,” Wilkinson said as his index finger pointed up and down the figure. “The three crowns focus on things that are within our control.”
The sculpture shows a hurdling boy eclipsing the net and extending his arm to the opponent with a smile, a physical depiction of the sportsmanship, full effort and positive attitude that the tennis program was built upon. The foreground of the statue is a Zen garden, a personification of the stillness of mind required to adhere to the three crowns.
“[The three crowns] bring us a stillness of mind,” Wilkinson said. “The sculpture is a complimentary of opposites. It’s a combination of east and west.” The statue was dedicated in 2004 to depict the three crown philosophy, a basic triad of values that have lasted as long as Wilkinson’s 39 year career. Equally important, however, is the stillness of mind required to accomplish goals of sportsmanship.
Since he began coaching in 1970, Steve Wilkinson coached Gustavus to 35 MIAC titles, 15 consecutive NCAA appearances, two NCAA Division III team titles and was honored as the national coach of the year five times. However Wilkinson’s coaching success is defined by his refusal to focus on winning.
“It was a life changing experience to play for him,” said Men’s Tennis Coach Tommy Valentini, a 2002 Gustavus graduate who played four years of varsity tennis. “When I played for him it was an incredibly freeing experience knowing that [the players] were not defined in terms of our results, but in terms of our pursuit of the three crowns.”
At the time of Wilkinson’s retirement the Gusties were 328-1 in MIAC dual meets. More impressive is the fact that Wilkinson is the all-time winningest coach in NCAA tennis history with 923 career wins, more than any coach in Division I, II or III. “He’s become the winningest coach in college tennis without having the primary goal being winning,” Valentini said.
Wilkinson will always be remembered for his spectacular on-court success, but his pride comes from sources unconventional in the ways of modern sports culture. His unparalleled innovation allowed for a philosophy more useful in life than in sports, and his pride is hidden under his three crown philosophy and imbedded in Tennis and Life Camp.
“I love working with him,” Tennis and Life Director Neal Hagberg said. “There are not a lot of truly brilliant people in the world. He’s one of them.”
Hagberg, who worked as the assistant director at TLC for 20 years, has taken over the camps following Wilkinson’s retirement with his wife Leandra. Neal and Leandra, widely known in the Midwest for their music, run the camp as a non-profit owned by Gustavus after being handed the reins by Wilkinson.
“It’s got to be really hard to step away from your absolute dream,” Hagberg said. “It’s like giving up your baby.”
The summer of 2011 was the first without the direction of the legendary coach in the over 30 year history of the camps. Wilkinson was forced to forfeit the defining element of his legacy, the Tennis and Life Camps, after the arrival of debilitating health issues.
Wilkinson has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has gone untreated, and kidney cancer, which was unresponsive to chemotherapy. After the failure of chemotherapy in August 2010, Wilkinson underwent two cryoablation surgeries, which removed five tumors from his spine, ribs and femur.
“When the chips were down, we got to see him stay true to his values,” Valentini said. “Watching him and Barb go through a long road with cancer, [Steve] always lived the three crowns. We got to be a part of that, and that [experience] shaped us and continues to teach us and bless us.”
Despite tremendous adversity Wilkinson continues to pursue his dreams by contributing to men’s tennis practices whenever possible and teaching at Tennis and Life camps nearly every summer day, barring any health setbacks or pain episodes.
“The life expectancy for people with kidney cancer in my situation is nine months,” Wilkinson said. “I [have] already lived nearly three years since my right kidney was removed and the metastasis had begun.”
The impossibility of his journey can only be conceived by those who are close to him, and understand his philosophy on life. Wilkinson has not only taught his three crown philosophy, but he has lived it. Wilkinson’s mental resilience can be traced back to 1974 when he met Karen Gibbs.
Gibbs arrived at Gustavus in 1974 and was recognized as one of the top women’s singles tennis players in the Upper Midwest. Her collegiate career drastically changed that year as cancer consumed her body, forcing doctors to amputate a portion of her right arm which severely threatened her career.
“I expected her to quit tennis after losing part of her right arm,” said Wilkinson. However after a year of rehabilitation and learning to play without her dominant hand, Gibbs returned to play her sophomore season as a left-handed player.
She astounded many by competing at a high level and actually winning a match against the University of Minnesota, but her physical condition worsened.
“By the end of her junior year she had lost 50 lbs, all her hair and had suffered a left shoulder separation,” Wilkinson said. “She wrote a letter discussing her journey and ended it in capital letters; ‘LOOK AT MY ABUNDANCE.’ She had ideas about sportsmanship that I didn’t think were possible.”
Karen Gibbs died the summer before her senior year in 1977, but her story resounds with all those involved in Gustavus Tennis. “That year was the first summer of Tennis and Life Camps,” Wilkinson said. “She is the inspirational story for people attending TLC.”
Gibbs’ name can be found on a dormitory, a tennis court, a sculpture and many other campus locations. Her story has been commemorated to embody the values of sportsmanship, and Wilkinson has spent a lifetime perfecting and teaching it.
Although his health remains a continuous threat, Wilkinson’s involvement in Gustavus Tennis and TLC will continue forever. The winning tradition of Men’s Tennis has been passed along to Valentini, and Tennis and Life has been entrusted to Hagberg. The legacy of Steve Wilkinson and the ideas of sportsmanship will be eternally preserved.
“I always told Steve that he would be 100 and I’ll be 80 and we’ll retire together,” Hagberg said. “That was my dream.” It is clear that the dream for all those that know and love Steve Wilkinson is that the three crowns live forever.