Phebus Olson returns to court

NEWPORT BEACH — Keri Phebus Olson is returning to the sport she loves.

It could be seen as just like old times, the way Phebus Olson swung the racquet at The Tennis Club Newport Beach on Saturday. Wearing a black and yellow tennis outfit and sunglasses, Keri Phebus Olson hit with aspiring youth tennis players at the introduction day for The Edge Tennis Academy.

Phebus Olson, considered the best female junior tennis player to come out of the Newport-Mesa community, is coming back to tennis a teacher for the academy.

And, when one gets into the accolades that she earned as a standout player at Corona del Mar High and UCLA, it is clear why The Edge Academy director John Craig is more than happy to have her on board.

"From a coaching perspective, it rounds out our coaching," Craig said. "I think it's great to have a highly accomplished player who's well-known. She knows what it takes to get to a high level of tennis, but she also has a great personalty. It's going to offer that female touch in our program, and I think it's going to be valuable for us."

Phebus Olson, now 38, is a two-time CIF Individuals singles champion. She captured the two titles for CdM in 1988 and '89, as a freshman and sophomore, helping CdM win the CIF 4-A team title each year as well. At one time, Phebus Olson was the nation's top-ranked junior in girls' 12s, 14s and 16s, and No. 2 in the 18s.

She then went on to a sparkling career at UCLA, where she reached the NCAA Division I singles final as a sophomore in 1994, before capturing national championships in both singles and doubles (with teammate Susie Starrett) the following year. Phebus Olson, a four-time All-American, is the most decorated player in the history of UCLA women's tennis. In 2007, she became the first Bruins women's tennis player inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame.

A pro career of more than two years followed her time at UCLA, before Phebus Olson retired from the tour. She became a school teacher for three years before becoming pregnant with her first child. She lives locally with her husband, Steve, and three children in the Port Streets.

They have become close friends with their neighbors the Musselmans, another athletic family whose daughters Alex (now at UCLA) and freshman Maddie have played for CdM girls' water polo. Keri, naturally, was excited when Alex committed to the Bruins.

Phebus Olson also went to this year's Battle of the Bay girls' water polo victory over Newport Harbor, and has plenty of praise for Maddie.

"She's a phenom for sure," Phebus Olson said. "I think she's going to be an Olympic [athlete]."

But, for her own children, she wanted to make sure tennis was an option.

"My kids are now at the age where they're doing all different types of sports," Phebus Olson said. "I always wanted to keep tennis in the mix. I would get them out on the court maybe once a week, just to keep it in their repertoire of activities."

It was just this past fall when the oldest child Jake, now 9 years old, decided he wanted to make tennis a full-time thing. Now Jake and Charlie, 7, are training at The Edge Academy. The youngest sibling Ella, 4, is also playing the sport.

"'It went from playing once a week to every day," Phebus Olson said. "That kind of got me excited and back into it. I don't want to be [Jake's] coach, but I want to be alongside him as he's progressing as a player. That was my motivation to start helping out John here, with the clinics that both Jake and Charlie will be attending.

"I've been away from tennis since I retired from the tour. It's fun to be back. I needed a break. It was all I'd known and done since the time I was 5. It was a great, long break, and now I realize what a great sport it is. I'm excited that my kids are getting super-into it. It's kind of brought the passion back in me. I'm getting out there and hitting with them, and it's fun."

Craig is excited to add Phebus Olson has his academy continues to grow. He said The Edge Academy, which he started in the summer of 2010 with head professional Iain Russell, has been a success. It now features more than 50 committed players. They include kids like Alex Araujo, 15, a freshman at CdM.

Araujo said he will run track at CdM this spring, though he plans to play for the tennis team next year.

"I came in first [to The Edge Academy] with my mom and dad together," Araujo said. "We started as a family thing, and John was really great about that. He knew that we were really casual, so we had a bunch of fun. As we kind of progressed and I was looking at getting more serious, we've been doing more clinics. He's really adapted to what we want to do and what we're looking at in the future, which has been really helpful."

For Phebus Olson and her friendly demeanor, the return to the courts will be helpful as well. She said some of her biggest influences growing up as a youth player were her private coaches, like the late Myron McNamara, who led UC Irvine to six NCAA Division II men's tennis championships in the 1970s.

Now, Phebus Olson gets the chance to mold young tennis lives in the city she grew up in.

"I think I have a lot to offer kids and parents, because I've been through it all and experienced so much," she said. "I'm looking forward to it. I like John and Iain's philosophy, because they really teach the fundamentals of the game. It's stuff that a good athlete picks up naturally on his own, but they really dissect it and teach every basic fundamental. I'm learning just listening to them teach. Stuff I did naturally, I'm like, 'Wait, what, how do you do that?'"

Twitter: @mjszabo

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