Editor’s note: Paul Gastonguay is the first of four Auburn-Lewiston Hall of Fame inductees being profiled.
LEWISTON – George Wigton knew what he was getting in Paul Gastonguay before Gastonguay ever did.
The former Bates College tennis coach was walking out of Alumni Gymnasium one day, past the outdoor tennis court on Central Avenue and something caught his eye.
“There was a 10- to 12-year-old age group tournament, and normally I wouldn’t stop at something like that,” said Wigton, “but I stopped then, and I watched him for about a half hour. He had discipline, self-control, all things his parents had done well to give him. I was interested in him from that day.”
Perhaps Wigton’s eye for talent was one of the reasons he coached for so many years at Bates College, because even he never imagined the kind of player – or coach – Gastonguay would become.
Even Gastonguay, who went on to practice regularly with Ivan Lendl, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, will admit he wasn’t a prodigy growing up.
“It was one of those thing where, if people looked at me in high school, I was a pudgy little fat kid,” said Gastonguay. “No one would have looked at me and thought I would have done what I ended up doing.”
Wigton had looked at him that way, and he knew Gastonguay would end up in proper hands with coach Rene Chicoine at Lewiston High School, too.
“He was a short kid as a freshman, about 5-foot-6,” said Chicoine. “His brother, Mark, was 6-1, though.”
Chicoine played the brothers at No. 2 doubles during Paul’s freshman year. The pair avenged a regular-season loss to a team from South Portland in the state final to lead the Blue Devils to the state title.
“When Paul came back as a sophomore, he had shot up some five inches,” Chicoine recalled. “He ended up being our No. 1 player for the next three years, and we won two more state titles in 1983 and 84.”
In 1985, Gastonguay became the first of three Lewiston players under Chicoine to advance to the finals of the state singles tournament, but he lost to defending champion Dave McNaughton of Cape Elizabeth.
Gastonguay had slimmed down by this point, and Wigton, who never lost interest, was ready to mold him into one of the best college tennis players from Maine – ever.
Kicking it into gear
Gastonguay wasn’t a great “mover” when he got to Bates.
“He didn’t have great speed,” said Wigton, “and his footwork needed work. He didn’t have great quickness, but that changed. He got better and better.”
Gastonguay’s attitude at the time seemed to mirror his talent.
“I didn’t really have aspirations of doing what I did professionally when I was in college, but like any athlete in any sport, I would dream about playing at the professional level,” said Gastonguay.
Wigton put Gastonguay on a weight program, something Gastonguay followed religiously. By the time he finished his Bates College career, Gastonguay had racked up 149 match wins in four years to become Bates’ all-time winningest player. He also became the school’s second All-American selection in his senior season, 1989.
“All that he did in college, came from a tremendous amount of hard work,” said Wigton. “He came with a great work ethic.”
Gastonguay’s professional career wasn’t spectacular by today’s measure. He never made into the main draw of any pro tournaments, but he made at least one connection that was enough to last him a lifetime. By coincidence, Gastonguay became a regular practice partner for Ivan Lendl, who at the time was ranked No. 1 in the world.
“It was pretty random how that happened,” said Gastonguay. “My first practice opportunity with Lendl came because I was practicing with a guy who was top 200 in the world a couple of days a week in Boston. He was the former No. 1 at Harvard, and he was at the tail end of his career. He was supposed to play Ivan, and he had never played with him before, and he couldn’t do it, but he gave (Lendl’s) secretary my name.”
Gastonguay waited nervously, and finally the call came.
“‘I’ll be there,’ I told him, I’ll be there tomorrow,'” said Gastonguay. “I wasn’t nervous that I couldn’t compete, I was nervous I would be a waste of his time. I wanted it to be worthwhile for him.”
The first time they played, Gastonguay lost to Lendl, 6-4, 6-4.
“The next day it was 6-2, 6-2, and then a month later he asked me to come back, and it was one of those things for the first six months. It was sporadic. He’d call me and I’d come back and play, and I think he just rewarded the fact that I never gave up. He was No. 1 in the world at the time and to this day I don’t think it’s even hit me the level I was playing at to be able to do that, even if it was just practice.”
Gastonguay went on to be a director at Lendl’s Connecticut-based tennis club, and continues to be in touch with Lendl.
Building the future
Gastonguay took the head coaching job at Bates with some reservations, though little did he know his takeover was more or less planned.
“I didn’t know if that was my thing at the time,” said Gastonguay. “I had always envisioned myself coming back to Bates, but I thought it would have been when I was a little older.”
Wigton, meanwhile, recalls waiting until just the right time for Gastonguay.
“When I was asked who the next coach should be, I immediately thought of Paul,” said Wigton. “I knew he would do whatever it would take to bring honor and success to the program.”
Immediately, Gastonguay had an impact. Because of his connections with the Lendl club, Gastonguay landed some top-notch New England talent, and his reputation grew.
The team’s current No. 1, Will Boe-Wiegaard, is at Bates because of Gastonguay.
“(Gastonguay) was hugely important in that decision,” said Boe-Wiegaard. “I was being heavily recruited by Division-I schools, getting scholarships from Wake Forest and Penn State. I made the decision that I wanted to go to medical school, and I wanted to focus on academics, but I didn’t want to lose tennis. I still wanted a good coach, to see if I could improve in college. I met him, I talked with other people, other players and coaches about Paul, and I just heard the best reviews about him, and that was it.”
Like Gastonguay, Boe-Wiegaard started his collegiate career with all intentions of playing tennis, but then moving on with his life. After becoming the school’s third All-American and winning multiple conference titles and nearly a national singles title last year, Boe-Wiegaard has reconsidered and will embark on a pro career after graduation.
“As much as it is from my own desire to work hard and be out on the court every day and eat right and avoid partying and that kind of thing, he’s hugely influential in my decision to do that,” Boe-Wiegaard said. “He helps me stay motivated. His support and his guidance helped me do all of these things here.”
The team, too, has flourished. Bates will make its seventh consecutive appearance in the NESCAC playoffs, and has one of the better recruiting classes in all of Division III entering next fall.
“I want this team to be known as one of the top teams in the country,” said Gastonguay. “We’re on the start to doing that. It’s been a lot of fun.”