By Bob Lowe
Kaleigh Carpenter was like many active children. She gravitated to athletics at an early age.
"My parents signed me up for everything: swimming, soccer, basketball... whatever," said Carpenter.
At age nine, she picked up a tennis racket for the first time. Carpenter now is a regular member of the Berry College women's tennis line-up as a freshman.
What makes Carpenter's story unique? She was born with one arm, and is the only current collegiate tennis player competing with such a condition.
"I never saw myself as different, which is the mind-set I've always had," said Carpenter.
The Vikings are currently 13-4 and 7-2 in the Southern Athletic Association. Carpenter has posted at 12-4 record at #4 singles. She has teamed with Caitlin Smith to go 11-5 for Berry's #2 doubles team.
Carpenter's left arm extends from the shoulder, just short of where the elbow would be. She has experimented with prostheses over the years.
She tried one in basketball and didn't like it. Carpenter wore an artificial limb for cosmetic reasons, but stopped wearing it in high school because she became comfortable without it.
In tennis, however, she learned to serve with the prosthesis. Ironically the only time she now wears it is on the tennis court.
"It's how I learned to serve," she said. "It also gives me balance when I take my racket back in the 'ready position,' and for my backhand."
Carpenter is not the only person ever to play collegiate tennis with one arm. In fact, she is following in another's footsteps.
J.J. Larson played NCAA Division I tennis for Virginia Tech from 2004 to 2008. She had a solid career for Atlantic Coast Conference Hokies, and inspired Carpenter.
"We heard about J.J., and I really wanted to see her play," Carpenter said.
Her family attended a match between Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech in Atlanta, which is not far from her family's Roswell, Ga., home.
"I was amazed by her talent," she said. "I was impressed by her competitiveness, the way she carried herself and her positive energy."
Carpenter attended Fellowship Christian School as a prep. In tennis, she went undefeated at #3 singles as a sophomore. She was twice named the team most valuable player. Carpenter also played volleyball and ran on both the cross country and track teams.
Outside of athletics, she was the school vice president as a junior and was elected student body president as a senior. Carpenter graduated with a 3.8 grade point average.
It was academics--not athletics--that first attracted her to Berry College.
"I fell in love with the campus," she said. "I want to study middle-grade education, and it was the perfect fit for me."
After Carpenter showed interested in Berry, word got out the Clay Hightower, the Vikings' head coach.
Coincidentally, Carpenter's high school coach, Cindy Freemyer, is a Berry graduate. She played for Coach Hightower on his first Viking team in the mid-1980s.
"Kaleigh was a little bit under the radar because she did not play an extensive junior tennis schedule," said Hightower. "When I watched her play, I liked what I saw."
Not surprisingly, Carpenter has thrived at Berry. Campus jobs are a big part of campus life. The College was founded with students working as part of their education. "Firsthand" is a college moniker.
She has enjoyed working as an intramural scorekeeper. Carpenter didn't want to give that job up, but she will in order to be a resident assistant next year.
As for tennis, she and the Vikings are having a successful year.
"I'm playing my best tennis ever," she said. "Coach Hightower has really helped my game, especially in doubles, and with strategy. There's great camaraderie on the team and we get along very well. The veteran players help and mentor the younger ones."
Coach Hightower is bullish on Carpenter's future with the program.
"Kaleigh has been a great addition to our team and the Berry campus," said Hightower. "She has been a great person to have on the team. But don't let her nice disposition fool you: She is a very intense competitor."
Kaleigh Carpenter wants to continue her growth on and off the court.
"My teammates are showing me what it's like to be a leader," she said. "Obviously, I want to improve my tennis, but I hope I can be the kind of role models they are for me."
Carpenter has volunteered the past eight years at the Adventure Amputee Summer Camp in the North Carolina mountains. She successfully climbs ropes courses, water skis, and is generally a positive role model to younger amputees.
"I tell others to try anything," she said. "We may do things differently, but we can do anything we put our minds to."