Next month, former Howland and John F. Kennedy tennis standout Lauren Kraker will compete in the NCAA Division III tennis tournament with City University of New York champions Baruch College.
“I think it’s a good parallel that I finished high school by going to state and now I’m finishing college by going to the NCAA,” Kraker, 22, said.
As a JFK senior, she and teammate Kaytlin Marlatt advanced to the state doubles tournament. Now in her senior year at Baruch, her college team finished first in the CUNY network of city colleges to advance to the nationals in May.
The biology major with a minor in chemistry will also graduate next month from Baruch with honors, including the Scholar Athlete of the Year award.
“I came to this college for the academics,” Kraker said. “I put my education before tennis.”
Each of the 11 senior colleges in the CUNY conference nominated two women and two men from all sports.
“I won the overall award,” Kraker said. “I’m very excited about that. Sometimes you feel like you’re doing all this work, and it’s hard to see where it’s going. When you get something like that, it really puts it into perspective.”
Add to studies and competitions Kraker’s volunteer work at Mount Sinai Hospital in East Harlem, teaching tennis, including to broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer (“She’s a nice lady”), service projects, artwork and jewelry making.
“There’s not much sleeping going on here,” Kraker said.
She has yet to decide if she will enroll in medical school to become a doctor or graduate school to become a researcher in a genetics-related field. She said she intends to take a gap year after graduation to work in a research laboratory to help her decide which path is right for her.
Kraker is the daughter of Dr. Gary, a family medicine specialist, and Leslie Kraker, a fine arts instructor at JFK.
Kraker picked up tennis at the local country club and, by age 12, played competitively on a United States Tennis Association team, while keeping up with her schoolwork.
“Those are the two things — I just studied or played tennis,” she said. “I tried every other sport and that’s the one that stuck with me.”
She transferred from Howland Local Schools to John F. Kennedy High School in Warren in her sophomore year. Kraker’s honors include the Golden Racket Award, All-County and All-Conference teams, four years on the academic honor roll, the National Honor Society and class president.
In 2017, she had the unique distinction of being captain of both the boys tennis team in the spring and the girls team in the fall.
That journey started in June 2016 when she was diagnosed with a tumor on her femur.
“I had it for a while. It caused a lot of pain,” Kraker said. “The only way, if I wanted to continue to play tennis or just work out or do anything, I had to get it removed.”
After surgery, Kraker pushed hard in physical therapy. She trained with the boys tennis team in spring 2017 to help with recovery.
“I missed the girls season, so I was allowed to play on the boys team,” she said. “They didn’t treat me any differently. It was a great experience.”
When the season began and practices gave way to competition, Kraker figured she would have to sit. “Twenty minutes before the boys started (their first match of the season), they told me I could play. That was a great surprise.”
When fall rolled around, she rejoined the girls team. Kraker said she does n’t remember her record of her, but “I still had a winning season with the boys and with the girls.”
MOVING TO NEW YORK
The day she graduated from Kennedy High School in 2018, Kraker moved to Manhattan.
Jumping straight from small-town into the 11th-largest city in the world, and largest in the United States, absolutely was culture shock, Kraker said.
It helped that her college doesn’t have fraternities or sororities, and that it’s a commuter school. There wasn’t a huge campus social network to distract her.
“I lived on my own. I like to rely on myself a lot. Tennis is one of the sports that comes down to you and only you and how you’re doing. I know if I put in the effort and time, (I can succeed). I don’t have to worry about other people putting in the same amount of effort and time.”
Excelling in tennis requires dedication and commitment. Those learned skills translate to either areas of her life from her, including academics and volunteer work. Plus, the healthy lifestyle she lives to train for tennis enhances the rest of her life.
“I’m able to be committed and dedicated a lot more of the time without stretching myself too thin,” she said. “I find the balance in everything I’m doing.
“It just seems like the dedication I do on the court and at school play off each other and allows me to succeed in both. I know that I am going to study and I know that I am going to practice.
“It doesn’t come down to a single moment, single match — it’s the whole showcase, the dedication, the sacrifice.”
The best part of hospital work is meeting people, Kraker said.
“I go to different patients who are admitted. I just get them simple things they need — food, water, sometimes crafts or just talk to them,” she said. “Just being able to meet people from all around the world — honestly, they’re from all around the world, coming into the emergency department.
“I have no medical privileges,” she said. “Being able to comfort them in some way is very good for me. Anything I can do to give them some relief from what they’re going through.
Many people can send money or make things from home to send somewhere. Kraker said she prefers to be on the front lines, serving people face-to-face, whether in the emergency room or teaching tennis to underprivileged kids.
“It’s even more important to do it firsthand,” Kraker said. “I’m walking around talking to people. You can see firsthand what your time is doing for these people. You can see the difference you’re making.”
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Kraker ended up back in Howland taking classes online.
“I’m used to not really having breaks in my life,” she said. “I tried to keep myself busy. I made jewelry between my classes to stay busy and shipped them to my friends.” She said she also used her mom’s drawing materials to relax through creativity.
But these days, Kraker is in New York finishing up academics and prepping for the NCAA championships. “It’s going to be very fun,” she said.
And when competitive tennis is over, “It will be nice to play casually and just for fun,” she said.
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