Organizer of the Month February 2020
Update 1/25/2021: USTA Eastern recently awarded Mary-Margaret Sohns the 2020 Adult Courage Award for all her efforts to grow tennis amid horrific health struggles. Read the feature we wrote in February 2020 about her remarkable story.
Mary-Margaret Sohns knew something was wrong. A marathoner accustomed to 20-mile runs at a stretch, the 38-year-old from Cooperstown, New York suddenly struggled to walk down the street without needing a break. She felt tired all the time; she sensed that her heart wasn’t beating properly, that her heart rate was too low. The first doctor she saw diagnosed her with an ear infection. As symptoms persisted, another doctor told her she might be depressed.
By the time she found a physician who actually heard her concerns and ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG) to test her heartbeat, she had taken to “praying in the middle of the night that I wouldn’t die,” she says now.
The EKG revealed that Sohns (above, with daughter Maggie) had been right and that she was in complete heart block, a condition in which the electrical signals that regulate a person’s heartbeat are obstructed and unable to do their job correctly. More tests determined that the heart block resulted from Lyme Carditis, a heart infection that occurs when bacteria from Lyme Disease—with which she was also concurrently diagnosed—enter the heart tissue. While Sohns was given antibiotics to alleviate some of her Lyme Disease-specific symptoms, the heart block turned out to be irreversible. She’d need a pacemaker to help her heart function normally—and fast. On Christmas Eve in 2013, she was rushed by ambulance from upstate New York to a clinic in Cleveland, Ohio to receive the lifesaving surgery.
The pacemaker presented its own issues, though. For one, the batteries constantly needed to be replaced because the device was working so hard to keep her heart beating. With her quality of life diminished, Sohns began seeing heart failure specialists to consider other treatments, and at one point she ended up wearing an external defibrillator for nine months. In late 2018, she suffered a particularly bad immune response from inflammation in her heart, and her health seriously declined to the point where she could barely walk again. She was ultimately recommended for a heart transplant; a couple months later she got a call and received a new heart at 3 a.m. on March 3, 2019.
This, however, is only part of Sohns’ story over the last decade. Nobody would have begrudged Sohns for taking the time to focus solely on her health and family. But in the very same period, she also embarked on a new journey as a tireless tennis advocate. She has become an invaluable resource to the upstate tennis populace and has been instrumental in growing the game in three New York communities: Cooperstown, Oneonta and Utica.
To wit: As she struggled with her pacemaker, she assisted in the formation of the community tennis association (CTA) Cooperstown Tennis. Through that organization, she has conceived multiple adult recreation programs. (One of the initiatives she organized—a clinic for women—was creatively named “Wine on the Lines”. The male counterpart was called “Beer on the Bounce.”) She also helped plan a junior program that is still thriving today.
“I wanted to give back to children [in the area],” she explains. “We didn’t really have a tennis program that all kids could attend. So I did what I could to get that up and running and sustain that. It’s really been magical because you see these little kids having fun and laughing and giggling and running around. One thing that kept me going was seeing their progress. You’re like ‘Wow, that's amazing.’”
Later, lying in a hospital bed, she helped coordinate some of the logistics as August 2019 Organizer of the Month Phyllis Orlowski put together a summer tennis program for kids in Oneonta. Sohns also advised some Oneonta tennis aficionados on how to form their own CTA and organized an Oneonta-based Net Generation certification, something that she feels is immensely important when it comes to the growth of tennis. (Net Generation is the USTA's flagship program for growing and developing youth tennis nationwide.)
“That's one thing that I really feel strongly about—promoting the direction of the USTA,” she says. “It’s through their guidance we can have a congruency in tennis programming across the nation.”
And when her daughter began attending school about an hour away in Utica, Sohns decided to take on perhaps her biggest, most intensive endeavor. She recruited local volunteers and formed a CTA to boost the sport in that city. TheCTA, called UticaWon, was founded mid-2019; the idea for it actually popped in Sohns’s head right after her transplant.
“I was writing down the types of programming that I wanted to try to do that I thought would be fun,” she says. “Obviously I was in a lot of pain, and that helped keep my mind off it.”
The CTA created a mini-boom of enthusiasm for the sport in Utica during the summer—and Sohns actually ran the first USTA-sanctioned junior tournament in the area in 25 years, just months after her surgery. She hopes to continue that momentum through the winter months: She’s currently developing a Taste of Tennis event which will be a free day of tennis for anyone who wants to play, as well as an innovative Cardio Yoga Tennis program.
“Flexibility is extremely important in tennis,” she says. “So I thought ‘Why not?’ It was geared mostly toward adults, but I think a lot of juniors are interested in it as well.”
She’s also in the process of developing a junior program like the one she started in Cooperstown.
After everything she’s accomplished in such a short period of time—all while dealing with a massive health issue—there’s no doubt that the tennis communities in Cooperstown, Oneonta and Utica are forever grateful for Sohns and her contributions to the game. But Sohns is equally grateful.
“[Volunteering] really gave me a distraction,” Sohns explains. “I’ve always been a fighter. That’s just my nature. But there wasn’t much I could do differently. The only thing I could try to do is mentally keep going. And so that’s what I did. I owe tennis a thank you for giving me an outlet for creativity [during this time]. And also for the opportunity to live through the activities of others when I couldn’t be active myself. That’s priceless.”
To learn more about Sohns’s health journey, click here.
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