In the winter of 2014, South Carolina-based tennis coach John Prenelle called Ryan Segelke with a proposition. Prenelle was training a bright young Ugandan tennis player named John Lutaaya who was running out of funding and needed somewhere to go or else he’d be on his way back to Uganda, where opportunities were slim. Prenelle wondered if Ryan and his partner, Leslie, would continue Lutaaya's training at their state-of-the art facility in Parker: High Altitude Tennis.
The Segelkes didn’t hesitate. With help from the HAT Fund, the nonprofit side of High Altitude Tennis founded by Leslie that offers scholarships, Lutaaya's expenses were paid and he was soon on his way to Colorado.
Just over a year later, the Segelkes, along with one of their tennis instructors, Kat Hutchinson, are in Kampala, Uganda, visiting Lutaaya, now nineteen years old, and his family. “We built this relationship with John, he was a tremendous individual with tremendous character, just a great kid," Ryan says. "How can we not want to go down and help him, and help the community? It just makes logical sense for us to go down there and do that.”
After Lutaaya’s arrival in Colorado and before the Segelkes' departure for Uganda, an unbreakable bond was formed between the young tennis player and the coaches at High Altitude Fitness. A tennis star in Uganda who had dreams of attending an American university, Lutaaya quickly impressed his hosts with his optimism and drive.
The Segelkes took him on tours of different Colorado colleges, and Colorado Christian University rose to the top of Lutaaya’s list. His tennis skills were good enough to land him a spot on the team and the school said it would offer him a scholarship dependent on a minimum SAT score of 820, which is where the real battle for his future started.
After Lutaaya failed multiple times to reach the score, Susie Watts, a tutor with Denver-based College Direction, began helping him for free. Lutaaya took his final SAT test one day before he was slated to return to Uganda, and he flew home not knowing if he had passed or failed. Thanks to Watts and Lutaaya’s perseverance in learning a strange new language that differed from the English he'd learned in Uganda, he passed.
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Now the Segelkes are in Uganda, helping Lutaaya apply to schools and meeting with locals to see how they can help. During their trip — they left March 26 and will return April 2 — they have meetings planned to help train tennis coaches; visit charities, schools and orphanages; and deliver much-needed equipment like tennis rackets, tennis balls, bags and tennis balls. Denver Mac Repair donated iPads and video equipment to improve training techniques, and Wilson donated rackets, strings, shoes, and grips.
“I think that there’s some very specific ways that we can help,” Segelke says. “One of them is we’re going to bring equipment. The second one is we’re going to provide education, and then is it the $88 we should focus on?” He's referring to to the annual cost of a private school in Uganda. “I don’t know about you," he continues. "I’ll drop $500 to send five kids to private school. That makes a lot of sense to me."
The Segelkes will also meet with representatives of the Uganda Tennis Association to discuss ways for Uganda to regain its membership in the International Tennis Federation. ITF membership guarantees tournaments and exposure essential to developing tennis players like Lutaaya. But after failing to pay its membership fees, Uganda finds itself on the outside looking in.
Strengthening local tennis communities will be a big part of their trip, as the Segelkes transfer what they’ve learned at their training center in Parker to a place halfway across the world. “This is such a tremendous opportunity to learn about treating people the right way, about what it really takes. Most kids don’t understand the amount of failure they’re going to have to face when they get into the real world,” Ryan Segelke says. "They’re not ready for that, and that’s what we have to teach them. It’s not you win or lose, it’s you win or you learn, and if they can learn a concept like that, they’ll have a chance to be very successful when they get into the real world — and that’s what it’s all about for us.”
They’re even meeting with the senior media advisor to President Yoweri Museveni: John Nagenda, a former cricket player turned politician. Ryan is excited to ask him how the Segelkes can help. “What ways, through sports, can we help provide a better life?" he says. "Let’s see what his ideas are, and see if there’s room for a partnership. That’ll be pretty exciting to meet with John."
Lutaaya once gave a speech at High Altitude Tennis during which he mentioned that he was lucky to eat one meal a day in Uganda. In response, the Segelkes are providing Lutaaya’s mother, a cook in Kampala, with enough money to feed 25 kids a week at a local tennis academy.
In the fall, Lutaaya should be heading back to Colorado for college. But he doesn't plan to stay here. According to Ryan, Lutaaya plans on returning to Uganda after he graduates to give back to the community that raised him. And both he and the Segelkes hope that in the future, kids in Kampala won’t have to travel halfway across the world to get a fair shake at success.