Kristy Pigeon: Make Your Mark Early and Often
NorCal Staff | May 1, 2017
By the age of 18, Kristy Pigeon was well known in the field of tennis. The Danville, California, resident picked up her first racket five years earlier, took the Section championship in 16 & Under in 1965 and was the runner up for the 16 & Under United States Lawn Tennis Association (USTLA, now USTA) National Championship in 1966. Two years later, she won the 18 & Under section and by 1968 was the USTLA National Champion – in singles and doubles, partnering with NorCal’s Denise Carter-Triolo.
Her winning streak continued, as she won the Girls’ Singles Wimbledon Championship in July, the Welsh Open Championships at Newport, the Pennsylvania Lawn Tennis Championships at Haverford in August, and the hits kept on coming. It wasn’t long after that when Kristy turned pro. Kristy ranked number 1 in the world in 21 & Under—all before she started her first year in college. ADVERTISEMENT
“I was a top ranked player before I graduated high school. But, you have to remember, we didn’t have college scholarships like we do today,” Kristy said. “I went to Mills College where I spent half the year in studies and half playing on the tour.” Kristy did receive offers from Arizona University and from a college in Odessa, Texas. “This was all before Title IX,” she explained. She proudly recalls winning a Good Citizenship scholarship from the City of Danville’s Chamber of Commerce.
Kristy was one of the “Original Nine,” a group of women including American pros Billie Jean King, Rosemary Casals, Nancy Richey, Peaches Bartkowicz, Valerie Ziegenfuss and Julie Heldman, and Australians Kerry Melville Reid and Judy Tegart Dalton. This group, together with Gladys Heldman, the publisher of World Tennis, stood strong to ensure a greater equality in tennis. “You can imagine how frightening this was, we put our careers on the line,” Kristy said. “At the time, prize money for one tournament was $35,000 for men and $2,000 for women.” Kristy shares that the prevailing thought back then was “nobody wants to watch women play tennis.”
It wasn’t easy to build up a women’s tournament. With the support of Philip Morris, the owner of the Virginia Slims brand, Gladys organized eight professional tournaments sponsored by the brand known for its “You’ve come a long way baby” mantra. According to a Wikipedia article, the independent women’s professional tennis circuit provided a more equal playing field when measured by prize money packages.
It wasn’t all easy going Kristy said. “We all had to pitch in to convince our fans to watch tennis.” According to Kristy, the pros got up early to do radio interviews and support each tournament. “We went out to K-Mart or wherever tennis gear was sold to meet our fans face-to-face. We gave away tickets to encourage folks to come watch us, we really worked hard to build up the respect and the awareness for women’s tennis,” Kristy said.
Kristy continued playing tennis on the tour until the mid-1970s. She continued her schooling and earned an BA degree in Art and Biology from UC Berkeley. In 1975, she relocated to Sunny Valley, Idaho where she directed the John Gardiner Tennis camps. Shortly after, she founded her own tennis school, Elkhorn Tennis School. She led the school for twelve years and earned a rating as a top 100 tennis resort in the world.
After selling Elkhorn, Kristy founded the Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped (SETCH). Her vision to bring the healing power of horses to individuals in need. She trained with the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy in Woodside, California. She served as the executive director for until her retirement in 2010. SETCH, now known as Swiftsure Ranch, continues to carry out Kristy’s vision to provide therapeutic horseback riding lessons to individuals with disabilities at no cost.