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Karen Wakey Obert

In the late 1960’s in South Dakota, before tennis had ball machines and fancy Nick Bollettieri-type camps around the country, it had Karen Wakey of Sioux Falls.

Karen started tennis because parents Reg and Donna Wakey thought it’d be a fun sport for the family. Karen took the opportunity to heart, and rose from banging the ball off the blacktop surface against the walls of Laura Wilder Elementary School, to become the best female teenager in the Northwest Tennis Association.

“Karen used to go to the school across the street from her house and hit against the wall like I showed her at my house,” said Dave Weber. “She was a very determined individual and would practice for hours against the wall when no one else was available. A few years later, she surprised everyone by winning in Minneapolis. She then was unseeded, unheralded and upset the field.”

“What probably separated me from the others was my sheer determination,” said Karen. “I simply loved winning.” And win she did, not losing a set while playing for O’Gorman High School, winning two state titles in 1973 (as SD switched from spring to fall tennis for girls.)

By the time she played for the Knights and coaches Father Tony Opem and Don Barnes, Karen had already made her mark regionally, starting as a 14-year old.

“One of my biggest moments then was the SD Closed, where in one day I played Chris Sandvig (Dummermuth) in the finals of both the 16s and 18s. Chris was absolutely the measuring stick in tennis at that time and was in her last year of 16s while I was in my first year of 16s. She beat me in the 18 finals, then I defeated her in the 16s. That win gave me the confidence to play championship tennis from then on.”

Karen said that little trophy, one of over 100 gathered in her youthful career, was very small in size, but the most meaningful and memorable.

All the Wakey’s enjoyed their run at tennis. First came Chris, then two years later Lynne, then Karen, followed by brother Mark in four years. Just hitting the ball, first at the playground, then to the Augustana courts, then upgrading to McKennan Park and the city lesson program was the family tennis standard. When Karen showed such promise; group lessons, then private lessons offered by longtime Sioux Falls teaching professional Weber followed.

As a 14-year old in the summer of 1970, she had a breakout year in the region. That summer she won the 16s in both the SD Open and the Minnesota (Gopher) Open, as well as the SD Closed singles and doubles, earning #1 Sectional ranking.

The next year, at age 15 she was ranked #1 in women’s singles by winning the Northwest Hardcourts, as well as the SD Closed and SD Open women’s singles.

Then in 1972 she had summer titles in Sectional 18s, Minneapolis Open women’s singles, SD Open women’s and Minneapolis Open mixed with Weber. Her end of year ranking was again #1 in women’s singles. 1973 highlight wins included 18s singles titles at Sectionals, the Nebraska Open, Quad States Open, Iowa Open, and women’s singles at SD Open and Red River Valley Open.

“I remember playing in St. Louis, then dad driving me through the night for a qualifier in the Twin Cities,” said Karen. “Once in awhile he’d let me drive that big blue station wagon, not at night, with mom rubber necking from the back seat.”

How things have changed, said Karen, who remembers at 15 traveling alone to Philadelphia, PA and Little Rock, AR, for USTA National tournaments. “I certainly got a taste in a hurry how the “big” gals played,” said Karen, who faced her first tourney on grass surface of all things. “I remember telling Dad of the surface. He said, ‘well, go out in the back yard and bounce it around to get the feel for it,” laughed Karen. “Yes, those were the days and I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything.”

Today, with husband Tim Obert, Karen runs Family Treats Ice Cream out of their home. Most Sioux Falls sports fans have tasted the Obert specialties at area sporting events for the past 25 years.

Karen has daughters Casey (age 30) in FL and Molly (25) in CO and enjoys passing  tennis tips when she can to grandsons Lakota and Cole. She was in her late 20’s when she earned a business degree from National College in Sioux Falls. “I remember reading study guides while feeding kids in a high chair.”

She came out of tennis retirement a couple years, coaching the O’Gorman girls team to the SD team title in 1980. While at OG herself, she didn’t lose a set in leading the Knights to the team title in 1973, defeating Washington High’s Mary Vickery in the spring meet, then Linda Kopriva of Rapid City Stevens in the Fall of ’73.

Some of her OG teammates were Leanne Smith, Pat Kellen, Catherine Shreves, Celeste Michaels, Peggy Donley and Patty Stombaugh. Doubles partners over the years included Michaels and Donley, in high school with OG, Lu Holwerda of Brookings, Chris Sandvig Dummermuth, Weber in mixed, Peg Brenden of St. Cloud, Connie Rallis, Kathy Falbo of Omaha, and Janet Everist.

After graduating early from OG in the fall of 1973, Karen worked at an Omaha Racquet Club and played many tourneys in the rugged Missouri Valley Tennis Association, earning #7 singles ranking there in 18s, #11 in women’s singles and #2 in 18 doubles with Nancy Caldwell of Sioux City.

Despite playing all over the region for three plus years, one of Karen’s favorite memories is a trip to the SD Closed in Brookings with the family. All the Wakey kids were entered, but her sisters couldn’t be found in the doubles draw. “Guess that is what can happen with names like Chris and Lynne, after they were found in the boys doubles draw,” smiled Karen.

Working at the tennis club at Westward Ho, Karen learned the art of stringing racquets and constantly filled in for singles or doubles for any league that needed it. “I must have played with every tennis player in town. It was really fun.”

A lefthander noted for her backhand, Karen’s game was built around consistency and perseverance. Although a proven winner, Karen was quoted in a 1973 newspaper article saying, “Losing inspires you. You never learn much when you win, you always learn something when you lose.”