She is one of only three known transfers from a service academy to become a UW student-athlete. And “she amazes me,” says her coach, Jill Hultquist. The qualities that got Allen to West Point are why she left and returned home to be a Husky.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – A most unique transfer into Husky athletics likes to fire ground strokes – and mortar rounds.
She is a 5-foot-5 sophomore that smiles after launching service aces – and anti-tank rockets.
There is far more to Natalie Allen than just being in her first season on the 24th-ranked Huskies women’s tennis team. Or being a law, societies and justice major.
The 20-year old from Shoreline, Wash., attended the United States Military Academy, entering in the summer of 2011 as a member of the USMA Class of 2015. In the spring of ‘12 she was the Patriot League freshman of the year, following one of Army’s best tennis seasons ever: 29-7 in singles, a conference championship and a place in the NCAA tournament.
She said she was attracted to West Point during a time of war to help people, to serve our country. She stayed for 18 months, through basic training, through the grueling and thankless plebe year.
The same qualities -- fortitude, a sense of justice, perspective and self-awareness -- that got her admitted to the Military Academy are what led her to leave it and return home to Washington.
“We were just held to different standards being women,” Allen said, flatly, last week before another of her practices during her first competitive indoor season at UW; she redshirted last spring.
“Plus,” she added, “I wanted more control over my life’s direction.”
Freedom and control, of course, are the largest of many sacrifices one makes while joining the military.
“Natalie has been a great addition to our team. She is always asking me how she can get better. Every time I say something she will do it.”
Every West Point graduate receives a commission as an officer in the regular Army. Allen had a five-year commitment coming as an active-duty officer plus three additional years in the military’s individual ready reserve. In the latter half of her cadet career she would have chosen a branch of Army service -- such as infantry, field artillery, armor, judge advocate general, finance, military intelligence – and a first duty station to live and work following officer basic school. Preferences are filled in order of West Point class ranking.
Beyond those initial choices, a cadet’s life is the Army’s – especially over this last decade, among the first graduates since the Vietnam era that have known they were going to war. That’s a tough concept for some 18- and 19-year olds to grasp, even some of those already attending the Academy.
It’s not a life for everybody. Nor does it have to be in an all-volunteer force.
Good on Allen to recognize an Army career wasn’t for her, before it was too late. Cadets can leave the Academy penalty-free up to the first day of their junior academic year. After that, they would owe the Army payback in the form of active-duty service time in the enlisted ranks.
“The hardest part in trying to decide whether to leave or stay was that I was on the fence,” she said, “and people there thought maybe I was not tough enough or I could not live up to the values and ideals of West Point.
“No, what it came down to for me was, if this wasn’t for me I shouldn’t put 12 years of my life into it.”
Yet the government and its taxpayers spend an estimated $350,000 on training, equipping, feeding and housing a cadet over his or her four years at West Point. The decision to admit a student and make that investment comes with expectations of service to the nation.
“There is definitely pressure to stay once you voice your opinion to leave,” she said.
Allen is believed to be the third Husky student-athlete in 40 years to transfer here from one of the three main service academies.
Doug Clarke transferred from the Air Force Academy to UW in 1999 and played wide receiver and special teams on the Huskies’ 2001 Holiday Bowl football team. Center Brad Hutt transferred here from Air Force in 1996 to also play football.
I asked Bob Ernst, figuring he was a decent source given he’s been coaching crew at UW since Gerald Ford was president: Could he recall any other transfer to the Huskies from West Point, Colorado Springs or the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis?
“Not a one,” said Ernst, whose son entered the Naval Academy in 2012 and is a third-class Midshipmen in USNA’s Class of 2016.
“SHE AMAZES ME”
Allen’s experiences have molded her into one of veteran coach Jill Hulquist’s most valued Huskies, after just a few weeks of competition for UW. Allen is 2-0 in her first dual-match singles appearances for Washington, straight-set victories against UNLV last month and UC Santa Barbara Feb. 9.
“She amazes me all the time,” said Hultquist, the former professional and college standout and UW assistant who is in her eighth year leading the women’s program; she had the Huskies in four consecutive NCAA tournaments from 2008-11. “By the time student-athletes get to us they are a little more resistant to change, but every time I say something to her she does it. She is one of the hardest-working individuals I have ever known.
“I can’t say enough good things about her, because she does everything right. Positive outlook. Courteous. Respectful. Hard-working. Loyal. Diligent. Those are some of the words that describe her.”
Natalie’s mother Mari is a UW graduate and investment broker in Seattle. Her father Bob, who graduated from Harvard, manages the line of food products from the family’s restaurant, Judy Fu’s Snappy Dragon.
Judy Fu is Allen’s grandmother. She is the head chef and owner of the acclaimed – and usually packed – restaurant in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of North Seattle. Now that she’s back home, Natalie sometimes pitches in there. The Huskies’ women’s basketball team, for one, has ordered Snappy Dragon for pregame meals.
Snappy Dragon is how I got to know Natalie, though her uncle, David. He’s the do-it-all dynamo who seems to work every day at the restaurant. David may be the nicest man in Seattle. He constantly smiles with and chats up patrons at a place Bon Appetit magazine rated a decade ago as one of America's top 100 restaurants.
No one in Allen’s family had been in the military. So what attracted her to West Point?
She was attending Holy Names Academy on Seattle’s Capitol Hill when one of the high school’s graduates came back to speak about her time as a cadet. Allen was good friends with that West Pointer’s younger brother. Allen attended her talk at the request of the brother, who feared his sister may be speaking to an empty room.
Allen ended up really liking what she heard.
“I wasn’t 100-percent sure exactly what I wanted (in a college). What I was drawn to with West Point was how they laid out your future for you,” she said. “I also wanted to do something at the time that would help people, and I felt West Point would be a good place for an education and also just a good set-up for my future.
“When I found out they had a tennis team I e-mailed the coach and said I was interested. That’s when the ball started rolling.”
She won two Washington Class 3A singles titles at Holy Names, in 2009 and ’11. She also made the state finals as a junior in ’10. She was considered a “four-star” recruit, just below the level where Hultquist looks inside the ultra-competitive Pac-12.
“To be honest I did not know a whole lot about Natalie before she came to the UW,” Hultquist said. “She was a good player, but for the most part to play in the Pac 12 I was looking at ‘five-star’ and ‘blue-chip’ recruits. However, there are some four-star players that sometimes slip through the cracks and I miss out of them.”
Allen’s crack led her all the way to New York.
“IN AWE OF EVERYTHING”
She has family in Connecticut and visited USMA in the summer between her junior and senior years of high school, and again in the fall of her senior year. During her last two days at the Academy she stayed with a tennis player – incidentally, one that also left the Academy within her first two years there.
Allen saw first-hand what her college years, especially her freshman one, were going to be: Up around 6 a.m.; shining shoes; reading The New York Times to prepare for breakfast formation and upperclassmen quizzing her about the day’s news; breakfast; then four hours of classes and labs; lunch at midday, with another inspection at formation before that meal; afternoon classes, then practice; dinner on the go; hours of studying; then the nightly, 11:30 p.m. playing of “Taps,” the somber military bugle song used at flag ceremonies and funerals, and to alert cadets they must be in their rooms; and lights out at midnight. Then rise around 6 a.m. to do it all over again.
“I was kind of in awe of everything,” Allen said.
Her parents? “Awe” isn’t exactly the correct word.
Natalie says her mother “was strongly against” her going to West Point, for the reasons many parents would be against their child volunteering to enter a profession that prepares one for war.
“If I were her parents I would be very proud of the way she represents herself.”
“She also felt that me being a girl, it would be a difficult experience for me,” Natalie said.
Her dad wasn’t as adamant against USMA. Uncle David? Knowing of West Point’ prestige, he was all for it. He loved that his niece was going there; he told me about it beginning three years ago when I mentioned to him I had graduated from there.
Natalie was entering a school founded in 1802 on the Hudson River about an hour north of New York City as our nation’s producer of Army officers and engineers. According to most recent class figures from its admissions office, 15,408 students applied to the Academy and 4,166 secured nominations. Of those 4,166 nominees only about half, 2,165, qualified academically and physically. Nominations come from either a candidate’s Congressman, through a presidential or vice-presidential nomination or a direct appointment via military or athletic channels.
Just 1,183 of the original 15,408 applicants gained admission to USMA in that year. That’s an acceptance rate of 7.7 percent. Last year, only Stanford (5.7%), Harvard (5.8%), Yale (6.8%), Columbia (6.9%) and Princeton (7.3%) reported lower acceptance rates than that, according to an April 2013 compilation by The Washington Post.
Uncle David appreciated the opportunity Natalie had at West Point.
But ultimately, mom was right.
A WOMAN IN A MAN’S PLACE
Natalie loved the military part of the Academy experience. Her favorite times were while on field exercises with her classmates in the rocky woods west of the Hudson River.
In the field during Cadet Basic Training, Allen flourished. While many new cadets without military experience flop around clumsily, she was smooth and comfortable.
“I really enjoyed all the field training and PT (physical training),” she said. “I felt that highlighted my strengths.”
But her love for Army tactics ran counter to a vow she had given her mother before he left home, that she would pursue a less front-line role in the military.
“I promised my mom that I would join the adjutant general corps,” Allen said with a grin, referring to the Army’s legal branch. “But I really liked field artillery.”
In basic training, the two-time Washington state tennis champion shot mortars. She still smiles over being the only one in her unit allowed to shoot an AT4, a Swedish-made launcher that fires rockets from one's shoulder at tanks up to 2,000 meters away.
She was firing rockets on the court at West Point, too.
Despite not getting to practice much while in basic training, she was 21-3 in dual matches and 29-7 overall in singles during her only season for Army, in a sport she first played competitively at age 13. That was the third-most victories in Army history for a women’s tennis season. Allen was the main reason the Black Knights went 22-7, won the Patriot League and advanced to the NCAA tournament. She was the first Army player in seven seasons to win three matches at the conference tournament.
So the field exercises, the PT and tennis: all great.
“All the briefings, the lines, a lot of the tests, that’s what I didn’t like as much,” she said.
Around the barracks and the academic areas, a plebe’s duties include standing in hallways calling out how many minutes there are to each formation, shining shoes and brass buckles, and mastering West Point’s inherent and most pressing challenge: daily time management.
As Allen said of her and relatively few classmates: “We were just held to different standards being women.”
It sounds like a long time ago that West Point admitted its first women, 1976, for the Class of 1980. But that was after nearly 200 years of the Academy having zero female cadets, ever. My plebe year, in 1989, Kristin Baker became West Point’s first female First Captain, the highest-ranking senior. It’s a role Douglas MacArthur and John Pershing once had. It was a big deal outside the Academy’s walls. The New York Times, among many national outlets, wrote about First Captain Baker; People magazine wrote two features on her, one at the beginning and one at the end of her senior year.
There have only been two other women first captains since Baker in West Point’s 212-year history. Today women make up 16 percent of the cadet population of 4,592. The most recent incoming class of 1,183 cadets had 181 women, according to USMA’s admissions department.
That number is about to rise. Last year the Pentagon ended policies that had kept women from serving in combat-arms jobs. There are now more officer positions for which women are eligible than ever, so West Point needs more female cadets to fill the additional women-in-combat lieutenant jobs.
But that doesn’t mean Allen felt equal. She constantly felt scrutinized, overly so.
She arrived in late June 2011 for West Point’s Reception Day, “R Day.” That’s the dizzying first day new cadets arrive, get their uniforms, get pressured by upperclassmen to maintain a tight schedule and execute basic military maneuvers such as saluting, and get their hair into regulation length. Males don’t have to worry about length; they just get their hair shaved off (as seen here in this video feature on R-Day produced by the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y.).
Allen said she got through “Beast Barracks” and Cadet Basic Training that first summer fortunate to have upperclassmen squad and platoon leaders who were demanding but professional and fair – just what the Academy wants from a plebe’s summer experience.
Once she left West Point in the middle of her sophomore, “yearling” year, Hultquist got a tip: an impressive talent was headed her way.
“She was coached by a friend of mine and he called me up one day and told me about Natalie's situation,” Hultquist said. “I looked at her record and she had a very good one for her freshman year at West Point.”
Allen is known in tennis as a “grinder,” one who doggedly scraps to get to all kinds of shots and uses her determination to hit returns. Hultquist sees the same qualities in Allen as a person.
“Natalie has been a great addition to our team. … She is always asking me how she can get better,” UW’s coach said. “Every time I say something she will do it.”
Hultquist told Allen she needed to be a bigger hitter.
“And I have noticed that she is doing that now,” the coach said. “Then I told her she needed to be able to finish shots off at the net, and I now notice that she is practicing that, as well!
“She is one of the hardest working individuals I have ever known. On top of our day I know she does extra conditioning in the mornings or afternoons. On days off I know she is usually doing something to become a better player. She can outwork any player.”
For this story, I e-mailed Allen close to midnight on Tuesday to ask to clarify a detail. She responded immediately – and then again just past 6 a.m.
So she’s also kept that habit from West Point.
“If I were her parents,” Hultquist says, “I would be very proud of the way she represents herself.”
And now, after a unique path here, former Cadet Natalie Allen she represents the University of Washington.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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