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Her Success – and Theirs

She returned to college with three kids and dreams for her future – and emerged as an Academic All-American

By Cecelia Lykes as told to Amy Wimmer Schwarb

I’m originally from Gaston, South Carolina, about 15 minutes from Columbia. My dad wasn’t in the picture. My mom, she had me young – she was 13. My mother went to live with my great-grandmother and let my grandparents raise me. That way, she could continue to go to school and could still be a kid.

My mother lived only 10 minutes away and would come back and forth and meet me. So, she was always around. I knew that was my mom. My grandma and my granddaddy, that’s my mamma and my daddy. I call both my grandma and my mom “Mom,” but for some reason, when they’re both around, they know the difference. It’s been like that for years. Both of them could be in the same room, and they know by my tone which one I’m talking to.              

I was one of those children who loved to read. I was always on the honor roll. I played all kinds of sports, and I knew that if I got my schoolwork done, I could go outside and play. And I always wanted to go outside and play.

I started playing softball at 4 years old. Back then, it was T-ball. Softball was always my favorite, and I was kind of just adding in basketball – but in high school, the scholarship I got was to play basketball for Lees-McRae College in North Carolina. I got there, but I was homesick. I had that big family, and I was away from everybody. So I completed one semester, and then the next semester I didn’t go back.

Then, three months later, I started dating the man who would become my husband. I was 19 when I got married. I had my son when I was 20, then a daughter when I was 22 and another girl when I was 23.

Softball has always been a part of my life, so I was still playing regular slow-pitch softball. We were playing in a tournament in Aiken, South Carolina. Benedict’s softball coach was umpiring, and Miss Mavis was umpiring out in the field. She has known me all my life – her husband coached high school softball. Miss Mavis said, “Girl, when are you going back to school?” And I said, “I don’t know. I’ve got the kids.” She said, “That’s Gwendolyn Rouse back there. I need you to talk to her before you leave today.”

Coach Rouse definitely liked how I played shortstop. She told me all the things I needed to do – get a transcript, make sure I was cleared to play and how many semesters I had left, check on my amateurism. I did all that and started school in January 2012. I turned 27 a month later.

My youngest was 3 when I decided to go back to school. My husband and I got separated just a few months after that. He and I are best friends now, but we’re just not meant to be together. Back then, I was just growing up and becoming the woman I was supposed to become. I didn’t want to be an at-home mom.

I had a lot to balance when I went back to college. My credits from my first semester still counted, but I had a long way to go – plus I had a job and played softball. The job I had was at night, so my kids and I would go to school during the day, and then by the time my ex-husband got off work, it was time for me to go to work. He would come to the house and watch them until I got off work.

That’s my story. We had a great support system, people who helped out when we needed them to. Even though our relationship wasn’t ideal – for our kids to be raised by single parents – I just felt that if we could work together, we could make anything happen. There were times when there were struggles. But we made it work for the three years we had to do it.

It was just natural for me to play softball while I went to school. The coach gave me the opportunity, and I knew it would pay for college, but every year I got more and more academic money because I had a 4.0 GPA. Still, every time out on the field, I laid it all on the line.

I had a lot of pride walking across the stage at graduation. I was elated that the coach had given me a second chance to get an education. I graduated summa cum laude. This year, when I found out I was Benedict’s first Academic All-American, I’m like, “Wait. Wait. I’m the first ever?” I was in disbelief.

And my children? Marion Jr., he’s 10. Marianna is 8. Mariah is 7. They’re honor roll students. Perfect attendance. Well-behaved in school.

I got my degree in criminal justice. I’ve been hired as a probation and parole officer in Greenville County. The hiring agent there was telling me how being a parole agent is a stressful job, and I said, “I raised three children, getting them through school, and I maintained a GPA of 3.94, and I played softball, plus I worked two part-time jobs. I think I can handle it.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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