Annie Boucher is not your average coed. True, she is a senior psychology major at Alfred University in western New York. And, yes, like her classmates, she lives in a dormitory, eats in a dining hall and watches Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation every night after supper.
When you come upon Boucher striding enthusiastically down a tree-lined footpath on the bucolic Alfred campus with a couple of tennis rackets tucked beneath her arm, she does not appear unusual. Of course, you realize that being a black student on Alfred's almost wholly white campus makes her a bit different from most. And you notice, as she steps onto the courts with the other players, that she's the only black on the women's tennis team. But what you don't know is that Boucher is the only athlete at Alfred who is also a 50-year-old grandmother.
Since she began playing tennis at the age of 37, Boucher has led New York City's Queensborough Community College to two undefeated seasons; earned a trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association Nationals; played No. 1 singles and doubles at Alfred for two years; and last May, at 49, was given an award in recognition of her athletic achievements and her involvement in campus activities. These accomplishments become doubly impressive when one realizes the hurdles Boucher has overcome to get to where she is.
When Annie was 17—and a high school dropout—her parents sent her from her home in Jamaica to nursing school in Kingsbury, England. But before she was certified, she became pregnant and moved to London on her own, where she gave birth to her daughter, Sandra. Four years later the two moved to New York City, where Boucher's parents and several of her five siblings were then living.
Boucher raised Sandra as a single parent in Queens while working nine to five as a keypunch operator for Paine Webber, the brokerage firm, in Manhattan. "Basically, I worked and took care of my daughter," says Boucher.
One summer afternoon in 1978, a young woman dressed in tennis clothes passed Boucher on the street. Boucher noticed how healthy and attractive the woman looked, so she asked where she was headed. Upon hearing the answer, Boucher turned around, bounded upstairs to her apartment, rummaged through her closets for a racket she had purchased years earlier for $5 but had never used and headed straight to the neighborhood courts.
The 37-year-old novice had to nag tennis-playing acquaintances to play with her. The only one Boucher didn't badger was Camille Bodden, the best female player in the neighborhood. Boucher had been told that Bodden never hit with other women. "At that moment," says Boucher, "I knew that she was the person I wanted to beat."
Six months later Boucher reached the finals of a neighborhood tournament. Her opponent in the finals was Bodden. Bodden's father called the lines. It was a good thing the match had an umpire, because Boucher didn't know how to keep score. "I was not concentrating on winning; I was concentrating on each point," says Boucher. Before she knew it, Bodden's father was shouting at her, "You won the match already, you don't have to serve anymore."
Over the next several years, Boucher, who's completely self-taught, developed her tennis by practicing as much as she could after work and on weekends and by entering local tournaments. In 1984, Sandra got married, and Boucher began to think about what she had missed in her own life.
Encouraged by some tennis buddies, Boucher contacted an adult-education center in Queens and earned her General Equivalency Diploma in 1986. Afterward, when she went to York College in Queens to pick up an application, the secretary in the admissions office ridiculed Boucher for wanting to go to college at her advanced age. A security guard overheard the conversation and beckoned to Boucher. "Take the 17A bus and go to Queensborough Community College," he said. "They hold your hand a little bit more there."
At Queensborough she was directed from one office to the next. "And the last lady held my hand and took me into the last office," says Boucher.
Boucher's first classes were remedial: reading, arithmetic and composition. "I felt like a five-year-old," she says. "I couldn't believe I was in college. I thought I was the only person who had started from scratch."
She considered going out for the tennis team but was reluctant because she thought that her studies required her complete attention. But Boucher respected the coach. She, too, had gone to school and taken up tennis late in life. Her name was Camille Bodden.
Boucher joined the Queensborough team and was soon named captain. Undefeated at No. 1 singles and doubles, her record was 9-0 in the fall of 1987. The athletic director encouraged Boucher to pursue other sports. "I needed the sports to clear my head so that I could think," says Boucher. So she played basketball in the winter and Softball in the spring.
However, when the academics became more demanding, she took a break from athletics in her second year. That's when she stumbled upon psychology. "I loved the name, the word, psychology, even before I knew what it was," she says.
In her third year at Queensborough, a little more confident in her academic abilities, Boucher returned to the tennis team. She was undefeated at No. 1 singles and doubles until the final match of the season. Up 5-0, 40-0, she raced to reach a shot and broke her ankle. The pins and screws ended her athletic career at Queensborough, but she continued to collect sports awards, including MVP of the tennis team, Outstanding Female Athlete in the school and Queensborough Student/Athlete. But she was most proud of her 3.2 grade point average.
The injury provided Boucher with another reflective interlude. She decided to leave the distractions of the city to attend a four-year college—somewhere peaceful, preferably—where she could study psychology. She learned about Alfred at a college recruiting day at Queensborough. That's how she came to this picturesque college of 2,000 students, situated between the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains and the Finger Lakes region. Boucher has brought a modicum of success to a Division III team that might otherwise have had none. The year before Boucher arrived, only four players showed up for tryouts, and the tennis season was scrapped. Her 3-4 singles record for the 1990 season helped the reconstituted team to a 3-4 record. This fall she was 9-1 in singles, and the team was undefeated—a first—with a 6-0-1 record.
While the women's team competes only in the fall, the men have a spring season as well, and they welcome Boucher to their practice sessions. "There's a big drop-off after Number One on the women's team," says Darren Stohr, who was Alfred's top men's player last season and often played with Boucher before he graduated. "I'm probably the only player on either team who was competitive with her, and I think she took every set we played. She's a very smart and consistent player. She works for every ball."
"When I started," says Boucher, "someone asked, 'How do you win? You don't have a backhand, a forehand, a volley, a net game, an overhead or a serve. How do you win?' "
Boucher has developed a little of everything: a dependable slice backhand, a hard, accurate serve and a strong, flat crosscourt forehand that results in the occasional winner. Most of all, her desire and her smarts enable her to outrun and outwit her younger opponents. "I just try to return the ball one more time over the net," says Boucher, "and I try to put the ball where the other person is not."
She tends to stick to the baseline, where she likes to wear down opponents in the tradition of her favorite player, Chris Evert. "Annie never gets down and never gives up," says Boucher's doubles partner last year, Hilary Berger, who also plays No. 2 singles. "I see her running all over the court and I think, She's 50 and I'm 19.1 can do this too."
What Boucher, who is paying for her education with the help of loans, financial aid, grants and an athletic-department job, is aiming for now is a B.A., which she hopes to earn next spring, and eventually a master's in social work. She hopes to take what she is learning back to the people who need it most in Queens. Says Boucher, "If someone cannot read or write and thinks that it's too late for them, they just have to get out of the rocking chair and go to school."
Some students don't know what to make of the middle-aged woman who sits in the front row of their classes, but to many she is a friend and confidante. One student came to her when she had no one else to turn to and told Boucher that she was pregnant. Boucher did her best to help. "I can't afford to judge," says Boucher, "because I had a lot of secrets, too."
Boucher usually studies in the library so she won't be tempted to waste time talking on the phone or chatting with friends in the dorm. But she has been known to accompany other coeds to Alex's, a local watering hole. Like any other student, she has been carded there.
Then, just when she seems to be fitting in perfectly, her maternal instincts will get the best of her, and Boucher will call out to a coed leaving the dorm on a cold winter's day: "Be sure to wear a hat."
Boucher didn't begin playing until she was 37.
After working and raising a daughter in New York City, Boucher relishes Alfred's serenity.