Vargas Overcomes Kidney Disease for Standout Coaching Career
A few years after undergoing open-heart surgery, Jaime Vargas’s kidneys began to not filter well. When the diagnosis came in late 2018 that he had Stage 5 kidney disease, Vargas called it a “shocking” development since he tried to take good care of his body and incorporated advice from his father, who worked as a doctor.
“Why me?” Vargas said this was his response to the news. “I followed diabetes procedures quite a bit better than 99 percent of my friends. But somehow I’m the one that got hit with the kidney disease. From one day to the next I could hardly walk around and move.”
Vargas attempted to diet but still wound up very ill. With the fluid built up in his body, Vargas began undergoing dialysis in April 2019. That entailed four hours of dialysis a day three times a week, all while Vargas simultaneously continued working full-time as sports director of the Jefferson City Country Club. He called that two-year stretch of dialysis treatment “a killer.”
He knew that wasn’t the lifestyle he wanted. At the recommendation of a couple nurses, Vargas decided he’d attempt a kidney transplant. He was accepted onto a transplant list at a pair of hospitals. On Thanksgiving Day 2019 multiple family members told him they’d attempt to determine if they were a match.
A couple months after Thanksgiving, Vargas's sister, Margarita Vargas-Pierce, tested to see if she was a match. On July 19, 2020, she informed her brother that she was. And on October 6 that year, Vargas underwent the transplant at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.
“It’s been a completely new life since,” Vargas said. “It’s amazing.”
And as for his sister?
“She’s doing great,” Vargas said. “She loves it.”
Vargas said in the aftermath of the kidney transplant he is “doing fantastic.” Though he was thrilled his sister was willing to step up, get tested and ultimately go through with the transplant, he wasn’t surprised. Vargas noted his mother would have done the same. The Vargas family moved together from Colombia to the United States in 1966.
“We’re a very close-knit family since we moved here,” he said. “We’re the only ones really who are here from South America. My dad was the first one to move. A couple of his brothers have moved since. It’s just been our family all together. That’s the only we made it — together. Everybody was very proud of my sister.”
The transplant has enabled Vargas to carry on with his work at the Jefferson City Country Club, where he’s been employed since 1995. Vargas is the director of tennis and pickleball in addition to overseeing the pool and lifeguards.
“They respect me a lot,” Vargas said. “I provide good service. They’re happy with me so far. I have one part-time helper. I’m here — available for the members — seven days a week basically in the summertime. I take off a little bit in the wintertime. I’m kind of here and there whenever they need it.”
Vargas didn’t think his career path would take him to tennis growing up in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city. Vargas was a standout soccer player and competed for Saint Louis University, helping the Billikens to a pair of national championships in 1972 and ’73. He picked up tennis for fun at Webster Groves High School and has had just one half-hour tennis lesson his entire life.
“I love the sport of tennis,” Vargas said. “I love the coaching I learned from soccer as a goalkeeper, and I translate it to tennis. I played for Saint Louis U. tennis also, but I was the last guy on the team. I learned a lot. I just kept passing it on, and I keep helping people. And here I am.”
None of it would have been possible without his family’s leap of faith. Vargas’s father wanted to specialize and take on a residency program in the U.S. Before doing so, he requested his children’s feedback.
“He had just built a house, which was very unusual back in the 1960s,” Vargas said. “He decided he wanted to offer us kids a little bit better opportunity. He asked us, ‘Are you willing to move to the States and see what happens?’ And we said, ‘Yup, let’s go.’ We all went. Here we are. We survived on our own. It was pretty good.”
The family initially moved to Cleveland when Vargas was a 13-year-old. They landed in St. Louis soon after, and Vargas has lived in Missouri since. As was the case when he played on the men’s tennis team at SLU, Vargas said he was “the last guy on the high school team at Webster Groves.”
“The coach liked the way I worked and worked,” Vargas said. “He kept me. I just kept working at it and didn’t like to get beat. As a soccer goalie, I could dive on the court and never get hurt. Soccer players just don’t like to quit.”
As the last line of defense at his goalkeeper position, Vargas had the best and clearest view of the action taking place in front of him. That perspective translated well to coaching, and Vargas has taken on many roles beyond his work at Jefferson City Country Club.
He spent 12 years at Westminster College in Fulton as — unfathomably — the men’s and women’s tennis coach and men’s and women’s soccer coach, with zero assistants. Vargas’s tactical ability, particularly on the doubles side — which he listed as perhaps his biggest coaching strength — helped the Blue Jays to their first conference championship.
“I teach everybody their own style,” Vargas said. “I don’t teach semi-western, full-western. Whatever they come with, I adjust according to what they can do. Then go from there. I don’t have a particular cookie-cutter method or anything like that.”
In addition to coaching collegiately, Vargas has had girls’ tennis coaching stints at Rock Bridge High School, Fulton High School and Jefferson City High School. Most recently, Vargas coached three years of girls’ tennis and five years of boys’ tennis at Hickman High School. He stepped down this past year in the wake of his health issues to spend more time with his family.
Vargas noted he has especially enjoyed coaching at the prep level, as he has worked with more than 100 kids who have advanced to the Missouri high school state championships. He’s taught eight doubles teams that went on to capture state titles and one singles state champion.
Vargas — who met his wife, Norma Jean, while attending SLU and has two daughters, Jessica and Natalie — has two grandchildren, which he said is the “best part right now.” Vargas has long been involved with the USTA. Shortly after becoming a Professional Tennis Registry pro in 1978 Vargas spent time as a clinician, traveling to high schools to give tennis presentations.
He was the United States Professional Tennis Association (USPTA) president for four years in the early 1990s. Vargas worked as the national tester for 18 years, covering the states of Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. He coached the Junior Davis Cup team for five years and was the USTA Missouri Valley Junior Team Tennis coordinator in 2017.
“You name it, I volunteered and did it all,” Vargas said. “It’s been super. It gave kids a channel — a way to go and what to do. I support the USTA 100 percent all the time. Every time they need help somewhere along the line, I give them support.”
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