Former GT women's tennis star Kelly Anderson recorded the win of her life by conquering the Appalachian Trail
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Kelly Anderson has faced serves in excess of 70 miles per hour.
She's battled fatigue and a variety of surfaces, tracking miles in a day.
She's even ventured long and unpredictable twists and turns on the recruiting trail.
Yet none of that could have prepared her for the seven-plus months spent dealing with things like 70 mile per hour winds trudging down Mount Washington, New Hampshire, walking as much as 25 miles a day, and the pitfalls of the Appalachian Trail.
The trail, which runs from Maine to Georgia, covering 14 states, goes some 2,190 miles, has a variation of 464,500 feet in altitude, and attracts an estimated three million visitors a year and nearly a thousand hikers seeking conquer it.
Last year, Anderson became one of those.
It was a whole new world for the Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, native -- a long way from the tennis court, where she'd already proven herself.
The younger sister of 2017 Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Famer Roger Anderson, Kelly followed her older brother to The Flats, and from 2003-06 distinguished herself on the court.
She became Georgia Tech's first women's tennis player to win ACC Rookie of the Year, was All-ACC the next year, and was part of two ACC Championships and NCAA Sweet 16 teams. Kelly still ranks in the GT top 10 in season singles wins (32) and doubles wins (28) and career singles wins (92) and doubles wins (81). She also was a two-time ITA scholar-athlete (2004-05), ACC honor roll (2004-05), and received the 2004 Bobby Dodd Scholarship.
After four years playing professionally for the South African Fed Cup team and earning six ITF doubles titles, she passed on her knowledge as a coach at Campbellsville University (2011-12), Illinois (`13) and South Florida (2014-15), then was head coach for one season at Stetson University.
While Anderson knew her way around a tennis court, she knew little about hiking. She hadn't even heard of the Appalachian Trail until 2013.
But once she did her interest was piqued and she threw herself into it.
"I took a road trip to North Carolina and went to a place called Max Patch. There was a hiker who told me he had walked the whole trail from Maine and showed me a bunch of stuff in his backpack. That's when I started to research it," she said, sighting "Appalachian Trials: The Psychological and Emotional Guide to Successfully Thru-Hiking The Appalachian Trail," by Zach Davis as a major influence. "I kept reading books about it and I knew I wanted to do it at some point. After the first year at Stetson, I just thought, `A lot of people wait until they're retired to do something like this. Nothing is promised. So I'm going to do it now.'"
Anderson had always traveled light but taking on the trail meant ridding herself of pretty much all her possessions and putting everything on hold.
She bought an extended list of outdoor items, from a backpack, a sleeping bag, a sleeping mat, hiking poles, a tent, to rain gear, a jetboil camp stove/gas canister, a fold-up cup, a lighter, a water bladder, a portable battery-powered charger, a headlamp (for hiking after dark) and some things you wouldn't think of, like Leukotape (for blisters or rashes), duct tape and 30 feet of rope, high enough to hang your food bag at night out of the reach of bears.
She relied on markings on trees and rocks on the trail and the feel of the ground -- the footing on the trail was harder from frequent use -- but also had the A.T. (Appalachian Trail) Guide Book and added the Guthook's Hiking Guides app to her phone.
On Aug. 15, 2016, a little more than a month after her last day of work at Stetson, she stood on Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in U.S. Maine (5,267 feet), ready to embark southward toward Springer Mountain, Ga., in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Her start date made it more prudent for her to hike north to south.
"Normally, if you go north, people start in Feb. or March. If you go south, you sort of wait until the snow's melted in Maine and you start in maybe July or Aug.," she said. "I started pretty late, even in the southbound season."
With a backpack she estimated weighed a little over 30 pounds, Anderson began her journey. Rugged terrain in Maine limited her to an average of 10 miles a day -- her highest day was 27. The elements would come into play, as the sun was setting in the early evening. She'd sleep in lean tos on the trail or in hostels in towns just off the trail or would simply set up a tent slightly off the trail.
While she departed on her own, Anderson soon found she was anything but alone.
"There were some amazing people that I met up there -- all like-minded but from such diverse backgrounds, ages and nationalities," she said. "I think sometimes when you're going through some of the most really challenging experiences, like going up the top of Mount Washington, and there are 70 mile per hour winds and it was frozen and there were eight of us that sort of stuck together, it's like in a team. When you're going through challenging moments, you bind with those people because you've been through so much together.
"It's the people that I will most remember," she added. "The perspective with which I view people of very diverse and different backgrounds has become much more accepting and open. Not many people ask about people's `regular jobs.' Everybody is on an equal playing field when hiking and simply interact as fellow humans without any regard for class or status. I never found out or asked their real name."
Instead, people on the trail get nicknames. Anderson's was "Sleeping Beauty."
"I would often be found napping next to the trail," she explained, with a laugh.
Kelly recalled meeting people like "Bear," a 7-2 hiker who had started on the trail at over 300 pounds but had lost a third of that on the hike, and "Quadzilla," who ran a crossfit gym and is a professional photographer who produces a YouTube channel called "The Healthy Gamer." Quadzilla spent some 800 miles with Anderson and became "like a big brother."
The camaraderie on the trail was never more apparent than when Kelly, while hiking through Connecticut -- and she admitted, committing the cardinal sin of texting while hiking -- slipped and hit her head on a rock. Fortunately, her night lamp took the majority of the blow. She'd hike another mile and reach a shelter, where she'd spend the night. But she was anything but out of the woods. The next day she was on her way to the hospital.
"I ended up in the ER with a concussion after going to sleep and then not being able to stop throwing up the following day," she recalled. "My headlamp helped cushion the blow because it was at night. The rock hit my head right where my headlamp sits and cracked it."
A fellow hiker drove her to the nearest ER and then put her up with a relative in Brooklyn, N.Y. Kelly stayed for a week as she recovered.
In early Dec., Anderson reached the halfway point at Harper's Ferry, Va., but at that point the elements proved too much.
"It was like seven degrees and it was way cold," she recalled. "I thought, `Maybe it would be a good idea just to stop for a little bit and wait for it to warm up.' I started again at the end of Feb. in the south and went north to Harper's Ferry."
On the trip north she was much more confident, remembering how she survived her maiden voyage on the trail.
"It's always scary to set up camp alone, hike alone," she said. "But after that first time you camp alone or stay in a shelter alone or night-hike alone, you get over that and it's an amazing feeling of freedom."
She'd passed her test in overcoming adversity, in a small town fittingly named Boiling Springs, Pa., where she almost reached her boiling point with the venture.
"It was so cold. It was less than 10 degrees and I was doing really long stretches just so I could sleep in a hostile at the next town," she recalled. "One time I showed up in Boiling Springs and there was no hostile so I slept in a toilet because it was heated. I just put my mat down and I was like, `Uh, yeah, this is getting a bit ridiculous.'"
She kept on and the ridiculous turned to the sublime on the warmer trip north that ended in Harper's Ferry on Aug. 12. She'd achieved her goal and completed the trail.
"I was really ready to be finished at the end," she said, with a laugh. "It was a long time and I was very relieved. I was happy and also anxious to find what was going to be next. It was also sad that it was over."
Anderson has a ton of pictures to remind her -- many of which she's posted on Facebook and Instagram -- and has the added reward of having been able to raise some money for a cause in her native South Africa.
"I did not start out hiking for a cause but people kept asking if I was hiking for a cause and a need arose in my home country to continue to help with the education of a child I know there," she said. "Two hundred percent of the money needed was raised and, with the surplus, the child's mom was able to do an ancillary nursing course and land a full time job at a hospital. I was really overwhelmed at the responses of friends and strangers who were following the hike."
Anderson is re-energized for her return to college coaching -- she'll be an assistant coach at the University of Delaware.
"They have a new athletic director, there's new resources that will be coming available for the whole athletic department and it's really on its way up," she said. "It's exciting to be able to be a part of a program that is growing and developing. So that's another challenge."
Regardless of the Blue Hens' wins and losses, her finishing the Appalachian Trail has made an impact on her life that goes beyond coaching.
"It's given me the perspective of not rushing through life and being willing to change plans in order to see a beautiful sunset or camp at an amazing overlook you come across," she said. "Beautiful moments don't have to cost a lot of money. You can be happy with less."