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What Life Is Like at 'Disneyland for Athletes'

Nico Mejia and Emiliana Arango takes us inside Florida's IMG Academy, where elite teenage athletes have access to high-class amenities and staffs dedicated to ensuring they're ready for a career in pro sports.

by Aaron Gordon; photos by Edward Linsmier
Oct 10 2017, 2:26pm

Edward Linsmier

In the western Florida summer, you have two, three hours max after sunrise before the heat and humidity makes outdoor activity a dangerous proposition. 9 AM in mid-July is pushing it. In that sense, Nico Mejia is running late. On the courts of the IMG Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, Mejia takes his warm-ups with his doubles partner, Sebastian Korda. The pair try their best to rally with ease, keeping their competitive spirits at bay for as long as possible. But that never lasts long with tennis players, especially teenage boys. Soon enough, their shots increase in intensity and sweat soaks their backs.

Korda and Mejia both have tennis in their blood. Korda's father and coach, Petr Korda, won the 1998 Australian Open and 1996 Australian Open doubles with Stefan Edberg. Mejia's father, Gustavo, was an avid amateur player in Colombia, and his sister Gabriela was an All-American at the University of Miami and competed professionally. His uncle Juan Mateus—another Miami alum—is also his coach at IMG. In a sense, the question was never whether Nico Mejia would play tennis at some level but rather for how long. Still, he never felt any pressure to take up the family sport. Instead, his family stressed that whatever he chose to do in life, he needed to commit to it.

Edward Linsmier

So at the age of 12, he moved from his home in Cali, Colombia, to the tennis hotbed that is the Miami area to seriously pursue a career. "I mean, yeah it was hard," Mejia says of moving away from his family, "because I'm a person who likes to be with family. But since I moved when I was 12 years old, I kind of got used to not being with my family as much as I would like."

Mejia spent a couple years training at Club Med Tennis Academy, beginning in 2012, but he soon outgrew the competition. There were only a few other kids his age, and they treated tennis more as a hobby than a future. Mejia, from a young age, regarded the tennis court as an arena. "On the court, he's a gladiator," Mateus said. "If he can chew you alive, he's going to do it."

At the end of 2014, Mejia reached the Junior Orange Bowl, a prestigious youth competition hosted in Miami. He got knocked out in the Round of 32, but he had caught the attention of IMG Academy coaches, who recruited him for their tennis program. When Mejia toured the campus for the first time, he realized it was everything he had ever dreamed of. He enrolled the next year.

Edward Linsmier

For teenagers ready and able to commit completely to the rigorous lifestyle of a high-level junior athlete, there is perhaps no better place in the world than the IMG Academy. Founded in 1978 by the legendary coach Nick Bollettieri, the then eponymously named Academy was the first major tennis boarding school and fundamentally changed how elite young players trained and prepared for professional tennis careers. In 1987, the year Bollettieri sold the Academy to IMG, 27 of his former and current students played in the U.S. Open, while 32 made it to Wimbledon's main draw. As of now, the tennis program has trained ten worldwide No. 1-ranked players, including Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Serena and Venus Williams, Monica Seles, and Jim Courier. In many ways, the Academy left a permanent mark on the tennis world.

Recently, the focus of the academy has shifted slightly, in line with the Academy's overall expansion, to accommodate teenagers seeking college scholarships in addition to aspiring pros. Over the past 15 years, the IMG Academy has spread its roots far beyond tennis to include football, baseball, golf, basketball, soccer, as well as track and field. Now it's fundamentally a boarding school where each of its 1,100 students is on a sports team. The Academy's physical footprint has grown accordingly, from Bollettieri's original 40 acres to a 450-acre campus lined with gleaming, glass-enclosed structures, modern dorms for the 70 percent of students who live on-campus, a nature reserve complete with a fishing pond, and countless pristine sport fields. The entire setup conjures a European soccer academy mixed with a Division I athletic program, and in fact, the Academy's amenities outclass those found at many D-I programs: fitness facilities and uniforms sponsored by Gatorade and Under Armour respectively, hydrotherapy for injury recovery, hyperbaric chambers for increasing lung capacity, nutrition coaches, leadership training, and vision and visual cognitive training. Golf carts, the preferred mode of transportation for IMG staff, constantly hum around the campus, which has grown so much that it's now dotted with oversized maps telling you that "YOU ARE HERE."

All in all, tuition and expenses cost upwards of $70,000 per year (the Academy offers limited need-based financial aid; a spokesperson for the Academy declined to offer specifics such as how many students receive financial aid or how much the average aid package is). While IMG also runs a massive sports management agency that looms large over professional tennis, it seems that more than anything else, the Academy functions as a standalone enterprise to create a sporting oasis for whomever is willing to pay for it. In addition to the school, the Academy hosts professional athletes for off-season training programs, pro teams passing through, and some international youth tournaments.

Of course, there are academic facilities on campus, too, tailored to fit the athletes' needs and future career goals. For elite high-school-age athletes, this offers a huge advantage over traditional schooling. In addition to aiding its students in qualifying for NCAA scholarships, the Academy equips students with the skills necessary to balance the unique social and academic pressures facing college athletes, while also teaching them to deal with issues that often trip up the pros. To that end, students receive media training in addition to a heavy core emphasis on the visual and creative arts.

Edward Linsmier

A few weeks shy of 40 years old and sporting a blue IMG Academy baseball cap, Mateus describes himself as a specific kind of coach. His job is to usher teenagers through what he alternately calls "the last mile" or "the point of break." In other words, it's his job to find out if they have what it takes to become professionals, both from a talent and maturity perspective.

Mateus believes the traveling tennis lifestyle is its own form of education, albeit a very different one from a traditional high school. Young players experience a wide variety of cultures, and have to learn to be responsible in many different foreign countries. They learn a lot about their own bodies, the human anatomy, about nutrition and chemistry to ensure they adhere to the strict and confusing anti-doping guidelines of high-level tennis. Mateus also teaches his athletes to manage their finances, file expense reports, enact time-management techniques, and other practical lessons most kids are lucky to master by the time they graduate college, to say nothing of high school.

Even with all of these resources, the transition to IMG can be a tough one. For the first six months, Mejia lived in the dorms on campus while his uncle still lived in Miami. Although it was the environment he always wanted—consistently facing high-level competition and access to professional-caliber training facilities—when he wasn't playing, practicing, or training, he was bored. To kill time, he'd play FIFA with his friends. But soon after he arrived at IMG, Mejia moved in with Mateus and he rediscovered the family life he had been missing.

Edward Linsmier

"Usually, 16 is very difficult for these boys and girls," Mateus says as Mejia jokes with Korda on the court. When kids upend their lives, and by extension, their families' lives, to accomplish such a lofty goal, they can get impatient. If a kid is used to winning every tournament without much difficulty and suddenly starts losing at the Academy, he or she might think something is wrong. They start making changes to their game, to their lifestyle, to themselves. They focus on the results on the court rather than, as Mateus puts it, "the process."

According to Mateus, only one to 1.5 percent of junior tennis players go straight to the pros. The rest go to college, which Mateus emphasizes is a good thing for most kids, who need a few years of stability. Maybe their bodies or minds need to fully mature. Perhaps they can't, or don't want to, cope with the nomadic life of a pro—or, understandably enough, they might not be ready to act like an adult all of the time.

But not Mejia. Mateus lauds his nephew for having a natural instinct on the court while maintaining a healthy attitude off it. "We were able to prolong the great times until he was almost 16," Mateus tells me. In the autumn of 2016, he adds, Mejia went through an attitudinal funk, an obstacle for developing tennis players that is something of an inevitability, according to Mateus. "He had a period of two, three months," says Mateus. Last December, his nephew crossed over to what Mateus terms "the real side," the point where a young player redoubles their dedication to focus on the sport. "Now, he sees what we see as an adult. We're very happy about it. Happy for him," he adds. As Mateus describes all of this in vague terms to respect his nephew's privacy, it almost sounds like like Mejia dealt with nothing more than a rough bout of almost becoming a teenager.

Edward Linsmier

Shortly after Mejia cleared this critical hurdle, however, tragedy struck. His parents had been working towards relocating from Colombia to Florida, where they could watch their son play, develop as a player, and emerge from IMG as both a professional and a fully formed adult. But, in April of this year, Mejia's father had a heart attack and died while playing tennis at his home in Colombia.

After his father's death, Mateus noticed a further change in Mejia. While it's been a tough time for both of them, he says, the hardship "actually fueled him to actually be a little bit more [focused on] what he's doing. He's filling a gap of whatever was left of his maturity. This helped him to realize that he has a lot more to live." For his part, Mejia discusses the impact of his father's death with a steely gaze. The last few months have been hard for him, he says, but he's doing his best to remember what his father taught him, to always be fighting, always be improving, always be competing, and, of course, to never give up. Sticking to platitudes while discussing a turbulent time in his life, Mejia already sounds like a seasoned professional.

Though the other top players at the Academy are expected to grow up quickly, they're still kids who need the companionship and support that only friends and family can offer. In this sense, Mejia's family is trying to adapt: in addition to having his uncle on campus, his mother is still planning to move up to Florida to join him. And he's made friends, too. That weekend, he had plans to go mini-golfing with Emiliana Arango, another Academy tennis player also from Colombia. I spoke to her mother, Juliana Restrepo, shortly before Mejia and Mateus as Arango practiced on an adjacent court. For Restrepo, who rents a house five minutes away from IMG, sending her daughter to IMG was "one of the best moves I've made because here she has everything that she needs." In her eyes, the place is like "Disneyland for athletes."

Unlike Mejia, Arango doesn't come from a tennis family. Instead, she grew up on a ranch in Medellin, where her family kept horses and cows. Her first love was horseback riding, but all that changed the first time she picked up a tennis racket, at five and a half years old. Arango loved playing on the clay courts. Restrepo recalls that her daughter would be "orange from head to toe" by the time they got home. At first, she played tennis once a week. Then twice a week. Soon, she was taking tennis lessons every day. By the time she was six, Arango was playing in organized competitions.

Edward Linsmier

As Restrepo tells it, it wasn't long after her first tournament that her daughter, while watching the French Open on television, made a prediction: "Mom, I'm going to play there, I'm going to win that, and I'm going to win it many times, and I'm going to be there, and I want to be sponsored by Nike." She stopped horseback riding and hanging out with friends as much. Instead of going to birthday parties, she preferred to play tennis.

By the time she was 12 years old, Arango was winning nearly every junior competition in Colombia that she entered. The family had already moved to Bogota to train at Colombia's best tennis academy, but it was clear Arango needed another step up. At that point, her mother faced a decision: Should she stop working as an architect for a multinational company, move to Florida with Arango to pursue her dream, and break up the family? Or should she keep the family and their lives intact, even if it meant ending any serious prospects for her daughter's tennis career?

"I decided it was a chance I had to take with her," Restrepo says as we watch Arango practice on the IMG courts. She viewed not moving to Florida as taking something away from her daughter, something she could never give back. She couldn't bring herself to do that. Not with the way Arango treated tennis. But, before they moved, she made a deal with her daughter: "Whenever I want this more than you do, that's the moment when I'm going to stop supporting you."

Edward Linsmier

This conundrum is not unique to Arango and her mother. For every teenage tennis player trying to make the jump from the youth circuit to the professional level, there is a family that must give up any semblance of a typical life. That athlete, in turn, must give up any semblance of being a normal kid.

A decade later, Arango's dream hasn't wavered, and some of it has even come true––she's sponsored by Nike these days. Now entering what would be her junior year, she spends her mornings at the Academy on the court and with the physical therapist doing recovery work before heading home to eat lunch. In the afternoon, she rests for a few hours, maybe takes a nap, before going to fitness training for two and a half hours. After dinner around 7 PM, she does schoolwork with her tutor—who she used before IMG and decided to stick with—via Skype until 9:30 or 10:30.

In tennis, even youth players spend a tremendous amount of time on the road. Arango travels for approximately half the year, with her mother accompanying her and handling all the arrangements. After practice, Arango tells me that when heading from tournament to tournament, "sometimes my mom makes me go sightseeing. You just want to, like, stay in bed a little bit more and mom's like, 'Come on!' We're like in, say, Barcelona, [and my mom says,] 'You're seriously going to stay in bed?'" To maximize her sleeping time, Arango has developed a very specific packing routine, organizing her clothes by outfit rather than by article of clothing. "So I just get there and just have to get it out and put it on."

To fend off boredom during the long flights or nights in the hotel when she's too exhausted to go explore, she likes to watch Grey's Anatomy on Netflix. While she often comes off as an old soul, Arango communicates from the road in the same ways that everyone else her age does. "I'll text and Snapchat or whatever" when she wants to keep up with friends, she says. "I'm not, like, 'Hey, let's call and talk to each other,'" she adds, citing generational differences between her and Restrepo. "Like, my mom doesn't Snapchat and doesn't understand. 'Why would you take selfies and send them to someone else?'," she says, good-naturedly mimicking her mother. "She'll text her sister and say, 'Hey I've got something to tell you,' and her sister answers 'OK' and then they'll call. But it's, like, why would you call me?"

Edward Linsmier

Before meeting Arango and Mejia, I suspected they––or their relatives––might feel as if by pursuing a tennis career, they've missed out on the critical stage in every person's life where they're given the freedom to experiment, make mistakes, and come away from it all with a sense of identity. Instead, the two teenagers showed me that perhaps that stage is only critical for the many of us who have no idea what we want to be when we grow up. Those years of rebelliousness and experimentation are useless to someone who already has it all figured out. For better or worse, their identity is already set. They're tennis players.

"If you ask her, she feels awkward seeing all the other kids doing stuff she thinks is meaningless," Restrepo tells me. When I bring this up to Arango, it becomes clear how ensconced in the athletic life she has become. One of the things she gets most excited about is not seeing Notre Dame in Paris or going to the Floridian beach with friends, most of whom she knows through IMG or the tennis world. Instead, her face brightens the most when discussing getting her rackets strung. "I mean, other than coming here and going to the gym, the only other place I go during the day is to…string my rackets. Which I love! I love the guy that works there because he's like a neighbor. He'll drop off my rackets so I don't actually have to pick them up."

"I tell her all the time: this is the world you decided," Restrepo says as we watch her daughter, wearing her signature backwards hat, hit groundstrokes on the court. "There's no time for tantrums or [other] teenager things." Arango expresses some mild frustration as her return volley isn't quite how she wanted it. Her coach, with whom she's rallying, waves it off, and they continue. Reflecting on the path her daughter has chosen, Restrepo says, "Sometimes, this is a lonely, very lonely career."

Earlier in day, I asked Arango to imagine her life without tennis. She had a quick answer to all my other questions, but not this one. "I don't know," she said, cracking a smile and looking up into the distance. She has apparently never thought about it. Of course she hasn't, I realized immediately afterward: I asked her to reimagine her life starting from age six. To answer, she would have to go back to Colombia, back on the horses. And that's why her mom took the tremendous step to bring her to Florida and to the Academy. "She's passionate about it," her mother will tell me later. "I think she was born for this."

With all of the emphasis on the final word, Arango finally answered: "I mean, I wouldn't know. I mean, what I would do."