This is for all those people who are seriously ill and thinking they may never do what they love again.
I was like that in 2010, recovering from back-to-back breast cancer and heart surgeries and the aftermath. I thought tennis, which is my athletic passion, was probably not going to be part of my future — if there was one.
During my illnesses, tennis was a number of things to me: distraction, as my recovery efforts happened to be perfectly timed for watching the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open; incentive, because I couldn't wait to get back onto the court; and dream — would I ever make it back?
I'm writing this because the answer to that last question is: "Yes!"
And not only did I make it back, but now, at age 63, I'm better than ever.
This month, as a member of the 3.0 seniors team called Double Mac, captained by Debbie MacDonald and Sharon (Sam) Macuci (thus the Double Mac) in Columbia, I qualified for the United States Tennis Association's League National Championships in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
We got there by going 10-0 in the regular season against local teams, by improving to 12-1 in the district tournament and then sweeping through sectionals with three more wins.
At the Nationals, played Oct. 5-7 at Mission Hills Country Club, we finished with a 2-1 record and tied for first in our group. We did that with our share of the unexpected.
At the USTA's welcoming party Oct. 4, one of our players, Karen Lackler, pulled a muscle doing the Electric Slide — yes, we were having fun — forcing a change in our lineup.
And during our first match, one of our players, Linda Daniels, who is a 14-year breast cancer survivor, got overheated in the 105-degree weather. Her heart rate rose to 170 and for a time it did not come down. A trainer was called, ice was applied — to the back of her neck, under her arms and on her groin. It worked. And she and her partner, Susan Thompson, survived and won their match.
We didn't advance, however, due to tiebreakers. It was Ohio, a team we beat that won two more courtsthan we did in those first three matches, that went to the semifinals and finished as the runner-up to Texas.
For me, it had been a two-year battle to be able to compete at this level. First there was the breast cancer and a lumpectomy two days before Christmas in December 2009. Then came the radiation treatment and, a week after that ended in mid-April 2010, open-heart surgery to remove a mass called a myxoma from inside my heart.
The mass turned out to be benign, but nothing went as projected during or after the heart surgery. Totally exhausted from the previous radiation treatment, I had little strength to get through what followed.
The surgery itself took eight hours instead of four. My lungs filled with water multiple times in the weeks and months that followed and had to be drained. A cough — so debilitating it made my stomach roil and forced me to carry a wastebasket and a roll of paper towels just to move from the bed to a chair — started immediately after the surgery and only got worse. A month later, it landed me in the hospital for another week while doctors tried to sort it out. Even now, I have some of the cough.
There was labored breathing, the inability for four months to lie down and breathe or sleep properly, swollen hands and wrists from the post-radiation cancer medication that led to carpal tunnel syndrome and made arthritis I didn't know I had rise up to test me.
I was out of work for eight months and away from competitive tennis for more than a year.
To say I was a mess and that I doubted I'd ever get to play the sport I love again is an understatement.
But eight months with a trainer in 2011, listening to my doctors and perseverance got me back to where I am today.
My teammate, Linda Daniels, had a much worse time with her breast cancer 14 years ago than I did, as it was diagnosed as Stage 2B and had spread to her lymph nodes. She hugged me the day we qualified for the National event and said: "Can you believe we're here and doing this?"
We both acknowledged being overwhelmed.
"I never imagined this," she said, and neither had I.
Working for The Baltimore Sun, and its now-defunct sister paper, The Evening Sun, I've reported on a lot of tennis. I covered the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open from 1988 through 2003.
I saw and wrote about a lot of great accomplishments — Andre Agassi's 1999 victory at the French Open, when he won the fourth of the four majors, something only four other men had done at the time; and the 2002 U.S. Open, when Pete Sampras, who hadn't won a major in three years, turned back the clock and beat Agassi, for what was his 14th and last Grand Slam victory.
I've interviewed many professional athletes who have unshakable nerves and unparalleled competitiveness. My teammates and I will never be like them. But each of us has overcome something to be on this team, whether it was health issues, self-doubt about our games or other personal injuries or insecurities.
No, we didn't win the national championship, but we were winners all the same.
We were there. We were enjoying each other's company, doing our best and competing.
For me, it was proof that desire and will can make dreams come true — sometimes, dreams bigger than you ever could have expected.