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NCAA postgrad winner goes pro in sports, too

By Brian Burnsed

Ryan Thacher, 22, carries aspirations that could fill two lives.

He plans to cram them all into the one he’s been given.

Millions of children around the world grow up dreaming of a professional tennis career – Thacher embarked on his this month. Millions more come of age hoping that they’ll be able to help, to heal, to become a doctor. In a few years, he’ll do just that.

Thacher concluded his studies at Stanford in March, a quarter early, leaving one of the nation’s top universities with a 3.917 GPA and 231 career singles and doubles victories. The history major, curious to delve into the intricacies of the past, doubled as a tennis All-American, furiously pounding serves from the top of his 6-foot, 3-inch frame and rushing the net to suffocate opponents. His faculty in both arenas earned him a $7,500 NCAA postgraduate scholarship, which are given to 174 accomplished student-athletes every year.

Thacher will put that scholarship to use when he decides to put down his racquet. Until then, he’ll try to rise up through the professional tennis ranks, hoping to ascend from futures tournaments – among the lowest professional levels.

“I’m looking forward to trying to work my way up from the bottom,” Thacher said. “That’s where you have to start.”

Thacher’s coach at Stanford, John Whitlinger, said his pupil, a tall lefthander adept at a serve-and-volley style of play, has the potential to carve out a good career, especially playing doubles. Before arriving at Stanford, Thacher reached No. 1 in the United States Tennis Association’s 18-under rankings.

Given his talents, Thacher’s parents have agreed to help fund his foray into professional tennis. Unlike in team sports, tennis players have to cover their own travel and lodging. Thacher hopes he’ll garner enough prize money early on to make the endeavor financially viable. Though he’s displayed a remarkable amount of academic potential, and a career in medicine is all but assured when he is ready, Stanford officials are excited that he’s taking a chance with professional tennis.

“He should try it,” said Beth Goode, Stanford’s senior associate athletics director for intercollegiate services. “He’s never going to know what it would be like if he doesn’t do it now. It’s not something you can stop now, go to school for two years, and go back to it. You lose it. School will always be there.”

Thacher will fully devote himself to the sport for a year; class and other obligations won’t sap his time or shake his focus. Late next summer, he plans to honestly evaluate his progress, gauge his potential and decide whether to continue or to jump to a more stable career in medicine. 

“If it’s an outrageous burden financially and it’s not worth it, I’m going to stop,” Thacher said. “I do have a lot of goals and dreams beyond tennis that I want to start working toward as well.”

In those dreams, he dons scrubs and helps children battle simple colds and severe illnesses. But before he can become a pediatrician, or even attend med school, Thacher will enroll in a postbaccalaureate pre-med program to tackle the chemistry and biology credits he didn’t finish at Stanford.

Like most teenagers, he didn’t arrive at college absolutely certain of his career path. But after shadowing a doctor as part of the Stanford Immersion in Medicine Series, and marveling at physicians’ expertise as they worked with him through his own tennis-induced ailments, he felt drawn to the field. 

“Doing something that makes a difference in people’s lives is very attractive to me,” Thacher said.

Though a degree in history seems as feckless to a doctor as a tennis racquet, Thacher sees value. The communication skills he honed while articulating his thoughts in history classes, both in writing and conversation, will serve him well in his future professional life.

“Communicating is a universal skill,” Thacher said. “It doesn’t just apply to someone who writes for a living. It helps you when, let’s say, I’m in the doctor’s office and I’m seeing a patient. The ability to express myself in a clear fashion to them is extremely useful.”

Thacher was beckoned to pediatrics because of the joy he has drawn from working with children in the past. At Stanford, he volunteered with the East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring Program, helping teach the sport to kids from underserved communities. In high school, he worked at a summer camp, finding it thrilling when a standoffish child he had mentored finally shed his armor and found acceptance with other campers. A day shadowing a pediatrician at Stanford solidified Thacher’s choice.

“I like kids,” Thacher said. “I feel like I can relate to them pretty well. They’re so energetic and youthful and optimistic about stuff. It’s fun to be around them.”

Reaching the fringe of elite professional tennis and pushing further to its core will be a challenge. Flourishing in a top medical school and pursuing a career as a physician will be equally demanding, perhaps more so, but Thacher remains undaunted. And those who know him best, like Whitlinger, his coach of four years, have no doubts.

“Whatever he puts his mind to, if he really wants to do it, he’ll do it.”

NCAA postgraduate scholarship recipients for spring sports


  • Lauren Alpert, outdoor track and field, Illinois Wesleyan
  • Julie Amthor, outdoor track and field, Texas
  • Hillary Bach, softball, Arizona State
  • Martha Blakely, tennis, Virginia Tech
  • Sarah Borchelt, rowing, Virginia
  • Katelyn Boyd, softball, Arizona State
  • Brittany Bruce, outdoor track and field, Baylor
  • Catherine Campbell, outdoor track and field, Dickinson
  • Simone Childs-Walker, outdoor track and field, Carleton
  • Katrina Choate, golf, Drury
  • Grace Collins, softball, Barry
  • Monica Coughlan, water polo, Stanford
  • Kaelene Curry, softball, UMKC
  • Zahra Dawson, tennis, Emory
  • Emma Dewart, outdoor track and field, Ithaca
  • Ana Guzman, tennis, Rice
  • Stacey Hagensen, softball, Pacific Lutheran
  • Nicole Haget, softball, Nebraska
  • Kendra Huettl, softball, Minnesota State Mankato
  • Kelsey Kittleson, softball, Luther
  • Emma Ladwig, outdoor track and field, South Dakota
  • Taylor Lindsey, tennis, Alabama
  • Annie Lockwood, softball, Arizona State
  • Ashley Miller, outdoor track and field, Nebraska
  • Emma Morrison, lacrosse, Maine-Farmington
  • Meredith Newton, lacrosse, North Carolina
  • Brooke Pancake, golf, Alabama
  • Allison Pye, outdoor track and field, Rice
  • Fabia Rothenfluh, golf, Rollins


  • Gerald Baer, outdoor track and field, Muhlenberg
  • Evan Barry, volleyball, Stanford
  • Bryan Beegle, outdoor track and field, Shippensburg
  • Kale Booher, outdoor track and field, Ohio Wesleyan
  • Matthew Bowman, outdoor track and field, Augustana (Illinois)
  • Ryan Dagerman, golf, Emory
  • Cullen Doody, outdoor track and field, LSU
  • William Gilmer, outdoor track and field, Furman
  • Zachary Grunig, golf, Northwest Nazarene
  • Tyler Hitchler, outdoor track and field, Nebraska
  • Braden Jackson, golf, Wingate
  • Benjamin Johnson, outdoor track and field, Stanford
  • Maksim Levanovich, tennis, Stetson
  • Cory Luckie, baseball, Auburn
  • Greg Miller, outdoor track and field, Wyoming
  • John Nunns, volleyball, Mount Olive
  • Jack O’Brien, outdoor track and field, TCU
  • Joshua Ostrom, baseball, Nebraska Wesleyan
  • Chad Pinkelman, outdoor track and field, South Dakota
  • Andreas Plackis, baseball, Missouri
  • William Polio, outdoor track and field, Centre
  • Timothy Quattlebaum, baseball, Gardner-Webb
  • Kenneth Ridge, baseball, DeSales
  • Tyler Rose, outdoor track and field, North Dakota
  • Macey Ruble, outdoor track and field, Charlotte
  • Daniel Sloat, outdoor track and field, Rice
  • Scott Sundstrom, tennis, Luther
  • Ryan Thacher, tennis, Stanford
  • Kevin Wright, tennis, Texas-Tyler

About the Program

The NCAA awards 174 postgraduate scholarships annually – 29 per gender for participants in fall, winter and spring sports. Each student-athlete receives a grant of $7,500. To qualify, student-athletes must excel academically and athletically, be at least in their final year of eligibility and plan to pursue graduate study. Student-athletes must also maintain at least a 3.2 grade-point average and be nominated by their institution’s faculty athletics representative. Created in 1964, NCAA postgraduate scholarships promote and encourage education by rewarding the Association’s most accomplished student-athletes.