Wedged in a lopsided circle between her new teammates, Anett Schutting — then a freshman — sat anxiously awaiting the coach’s directions.
In a team-bonding exercise at Haas Pavilion, head coach Amanda Augustus told the Cal women’s tennis team to share a past experience that had deeply affected them. Schutting was shocked that her coach would ask her to share something so personal.
“Culture here (in America) is a lot different,” Schutting says. “People here are a lot more open and more willing to share how they feel.”
Before coach Augustus could even finish her sentence, Schutting knew what she should say. But she didn’t know if she was going to say it. As her turn approached, Schutting imagined what her teammates’ reactions would be to such a personal memory. Nonetheless, she shared about her father’s unexpected passing and the ripples it spread across her family.
To her surprise, what greeted her at the end of her story was a circle of teammates who understood her pain and her desire to move on from that part of her life.
“There are many things in my life that I don’t feel comfortable talking about,” Schutting says. “It’s hard to keep things inside instead of talking them out. The fact that everyone is very encouraging and supportive creates a safe space where you feel like you can share your personal issues and past experiences. It helps you be who you really are.”
Two weeks before her 17th birthday, Schutting competed in a $10,000 ITF tournament in Finland. She put on the best performance of her career, reaching the semifinals. She called her dad to tell him the good news. Like any father, he was proud to see her hard work begin to pay off at such a young age.
The night of the tournament, Schutting returned home eager to unwind after an exhausting competition. She had anticipated that her parents would greet her at the front door, but no one was home. Schutting searched for her parents, to no avail. The phone rang. It was her mother on the other line — Schutting’s father was in the emergency room with health complications. He passed away shortly after.
“The last words he told me was that he was proud of me and that I did well,” Schutting says. “That was the last time I talked to him. When I got home, my father wasn’t there and neither was my mom. My mom was on the phone, and she told me that he was taken to emergency care. At that moment, I had no idea what was going on.”
In 2010 — a little more than two years after the passing of her father — Schutting came to Cal to continue playing tennis after deciding against going pro. But once in Berkeley, the Estonian struggled to balance school with athletics. Beyond that, Schutting had to adjust to living in a new country and a foreign culture. She found adapting to life without her family difficult in an unfamiliar environment.
“The first semester was definitely the hardest,” Schutting says. “I was under a lot of pressure, and it was really hard to balance everything.”
Like most college freshmen, Schutting began to feel homesick, and the tough workload didn’t help.
“My first year, I was shriveling and thinking about the past too much with my dad,” Schutting says. “I felt a little bit more different than everyone else.”
Having only played tennis individually, Schutting slowly found comfort in her new teammates. She realized that she could turn to them whenever she wanted to talk or needed advice with school or tennis. Gradually, the guarded, closed-off athlete who came to Cal was letting people in. Back home, Schutting played club tennis and was on the Estonian national team, but she found being on the Cal women’s tennis team far different. In Estonia, all the players were focused on individual victories. At Cal, coach Augustus emphasized team success over individual accomplishments.
“She’s become a lot more outgoing,” Augustus says. “She’s a lot more comfortable speaking to a group and leading. She’s taken advantage of everything Berkeley has to offer. Her coming from a small country in Europe, she came a really long way and learned from her experiences.”
In the fall of 2012, Schutting and teammate Zsofi Susanyi traveled to the USTA/ITA National Indoor Intercollegiate Championship in New York. As the only two Cal players competing, the two spent all of their time together. Despite both of their losses in the final four, Schutting and Susanyi bonded in a way they never had before.
“When I got here, she was the type of person that knew what she wanted to do and that was her job, but she was more closed than she is right now,” Susanyi says. “These past two years that I’ve spent with her, she’s so much more open.”
Now just months away from graduation and the end of her tennis career at Cal, Schutting looks forward to surfing the summer away on a sandy beach — something she never thought she would be doing four years ago.
Schutting always entertained the idea of surfing but never got around to it. Then, two years ago during the summer, she mustered up the nerve to surf in the frigid waters of Stinson Beach. Riding the small waves, she could barely stand on the board but found a new passion. Then, on a team trip the following season, she got to surf with her teammates in the comfortable waters of Hawaii.
Schutting’s teammates and experiences at Cal have afforded her the opportunity to properly move on from her father’s passing. Almost six years after his death and four years after coming to Cal, she has matured from a guarded, independent athlete to an open, confident teammate.
“Finding your inner identity,” Schutting says, “who you are and how you want to act on and off the court; what kind of example you want to be to other people; how you want to carry yourself — I feel like I’ve grown in that sense a lot.”
Winston Cho covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected]