TRAILBLAZERS: Forging a path from Grafton to USA
TENNIS: Taylah Beckman's bags are packed. She can't wait to get back into the swing of things on the US College Tennis circuit.
She flies out on Sunday to embark on her second year at Brigham Young University in Utah.
"I had this picture in my head of what it was all going to be like, from things I'd heard from Brit (Huxley), Ash (Elward) and Jake (Sullivan).
"But it really opened my eyes up. It's so different. So team-oriented. There's a really big emphasis on team and I like that aspect of it.
"Even at tournaments when you're playing for yourself your team supports you and you have your coach on court all the time.
"I was a little bit nervous going over the first time, but this time I know what to expect and I'm a lot more excited."
Playing at altitude
At first it took a while for Beckman to get adjusted. Not only to being away from her family and friends in a foreign country, but also variances in playing conditions, such as playing at altitude (Salt Lake City is 1228m above sea level) or indoors.
"I've played at sea level all my life," she said. "So over there everything just flies off the racquet. And the climate - it's a really dry heat in Utah. Those things made it harder in terms of fitness.
"But it does work to our advantage too, because other schools had to come and play us.
"I've also played outdoors my whole life and a lot of our matches are indoor. In my first year I didn't really like that aspect. Indoors has a different feel.
"Brit said she was the same in her first year but said you grow to like the indoors."
Following a strong legacy
Beckman comes from tennis royalty. Her great uncle was multiple grand slam winner Fred Stolle. Meanwhile she was raised on the courts of Grafton City Tennis Club by the coaching duo of her father Michael and uncle Phil, while another uncle, Darren, tutors the rich and famous on the courts of Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.
It's her family's connections and previous experiences that have encouraged a long line of junior products from Grafton to further their game in the US.
Brit Huxley completed her college tennis career at Middle Tennessee State this year with selection in the NCAA All Conference 1st Team for singles and 3rd Team for doubles.
Flying out from Coffs Harbour this weekend to complete her studies to be a teacher, Huxley said she was inspired by people like her teacher at Grafton High School, Kelly Blanch, who paved a similar pathway in the 1990s, to take the challenge.
"I think that really encouraged me to go over," Huxley said. "She came back with a PE teaching degree and now I'm doing teaching.
"It's silly not to if you want to continue studies and play tennis because there's nothing like that here.
"I'd really encourage others to go over, no matter their standard, because there's different divisions. And you travel America. It's everything all in one."
Grafton's fabulous five on US College circuit
Another Grafton product Jake Sullivan is preparing to complete his senior year at BYU in the mens tennis team while majoring in economics as a student. He leaves on Tuesday.
"It's been a great experience for me," Sullivan said. "Coming from a little country town like Grafton and being able to gain that experience over there has been great," Sullivan said.
"It's the perfect way to play competitive tennis and gain a great education. I'd encourage others to do the same."
Grafton also has Ashleigh Elward at Tarleton State, Texas and her sister Chloe is about to become the fifth current player from Grafton on the college circuit.
Taylah's brush with fame
One day, potentially as a professional tennis player or broadcast journalist, Taylah Beckman's face could become one people recognise in the streets of cities around the world.
But this week she had her own brush with fame at 2Be Nourished Cafe, where she has worked during her college break. She was behind the counter when Hollywood actor Sir Anthony Hopkins dropped in for lunch with his wife and entourage during a break from filming Thor: Ragnarok on the Gold Coast.
"We didn't realise who he was at the time," she said.
"But as soon as he walked in you could tell he wasn't an ordinary person. All the accents, the clothes, his Colombian wife. Plus they bought a lot of stuff, a lot more than most people do."
Star spotting is not a strange concept for Taylah, whose uncle at Riviera coaches the likes of Ed O'Neill (Modern Family) and Elisabeth Shue (The Karate Kid, Cocktail).
"When I head back I'll spend the first week with my uncle who lives in California and it's very normal to see a lot of them there, especially in airports.
"Also last year we went to New York for the US Open and stayed next to where a lot of the tennis players stayed, including Serena Williams."
But the highlight for Taylah was dining alongside supermodel Cindy Crawford.
"Our coach always looks after us and takes us to nice restaurants," she said. "When I was in Malibu with my team we went to a nice Mexican place and Cindy Crawford walked in and sat at the table next to us.
"We were wondering whether we should disturb them. But in the end her husband came and talked to us, because we were all in our uniform and he asked us what school we were from.
"They were really nice."