For the love of the game
A player's story
Barbara Waldmann Ward | November 14, 2016
How in the world did I get here? I turn 60 this year, and I am recovering from a massive rotator cuff tear. It was a complete tear of two of the major muscles in my shoulder, with nothing holding down my shoulder bone. I must admit: I do nothing half way.
So what is driving me to get better? Why am I putting hours in at the gym, keeping the rest of my body strong and doing what my surgeon told me to do, which is going at a slow rate with my physical therapy and not pushing it?
It is for the love of the game, my game: tennis.
It is important to know where this drives comes from. I grew up with six brothers and four sisters, in a small blue-collar town near Cincinnati. When you come from a large family, you must be independent and strong-willed to hold your own. I was the quiet one, but that did not mean I didn’t put up a good fight when I needed to. ADVERTISEMENT We were highly motivated and played sports. We wanted to win, not to just show up and be satisfied with anything less than giving 100 percent.
During my senior year of high school, girls were permitted to play in non-contact sports with boys. I wanted to be one of the first to do so. Track wasn’t the right fit for me, so I decided to try tennis. I had never played or even owned a racquet. I drilled with the boys and, as you might guess, they did their best to see if I would stick with it. I got hit with more balls than I care to remember.
The coach felt he finally had to play me since I was not going to quit. He paired me with another boy who had never played. Our first match – and only match – was against a top school. The coaches agreed to play a tiebreak for our match, feeling this would not be as embarrassing for us. By some miracle, we won that tiebreak. I do believe we were so inexperienced that our opponents couldn’t anticipate where we might hit the ball. After that year, I did not pick up a racquet again until I was 35.
That was when I married my husband Mike, a Presbyterian minister, and had my son, William. Our choir director and organist, Catherine Davidson, then in her 70s, asked if I would like to join a group of women to give tennis a try. They were older and well-seasoned tennis players. Believe it or not, our church had tennis courts on the grounds. I borrowed a racquet and they reintroduced me to the game with patience and guidance. I had so much fun, and my competitive juices were flowing once again. I was hooked on learning and playing the game. I started taking a few lessons and joined a USTA team.
I tend to believe that my tennis abilities and passion for the game are a direct result of all the pros that have helped me through the years, but I should say that two in particular have been instrumental.
First: Matt Hill. I started taking lessons from him at the Kentucky Tennis Academy, which is no longer operating. Matt is the pro who was willing to work with a beginner, in her late 30s, with no real knowledge of strokes or how to play the game when no one else would. He taught me to hit with top spin by hitting balls over the dividing nets between two courts. We also worked on just keeping 25 balls in play. Who knew that would take almost the whole hour? Matt also taught me the benefits of playing tennis on and off the court.
Matt and tennis have been there for me through many trials in my life. I’m a pediatric hematology/oncology nurse who loves her job and the kids she cares for. There are many ups to this job – as in getting to know the child and his or her family – but as you might expect, many low points as well – like when a child is not doing well or dies.
When I was 53, I was diagnosed with stage 2/3 breast cancer. I underwent bilateral mastectomies, chemotherapy, spent a month in the hospital with a severe infection, part in the ICU and radiation. I also have had a knee replacement and have had to deal with the death of my parents. Tennis provided me an outlet during these difficult times. Tennis is a place where I can work off frustrations and even sadness. I can escape from all things at least for a little while and just focus on that little yellow ball. During my cancer, it was a place for me to be normal, to forget about having cancer for at least the time I was on the court. It was some seriously ugly tennis and at times hard for me to even catch my breath, but Matt was always able to keep me going.
The second pro, who I have worked over the last two years at The Lexington Tennis Club, is Ron Harper. He was recommended by Jo Wallen, the then-manager at the club, and I took her up on her suggestion and scheduled a lesson with him.
Ron is completely different from other pros I have hit with, and I give him a lot of credit for being the one who has taken my tennis to another level. He hasn’t worked with just the techniques of tennis, but as he told me, he focuses more on the “mind, body and spirit.”
Ron had me figured out from Day 1. He didn’t look at me as a woman in her late 50s who wanted to just take some lessons. He saw in me the athlete, a person who loved to compete and who possessed a strong will to improve and win. He pushed me. Those who were on courts near us thought at times that he was too hard on me, but he knew what it took to get me to work harder, and sometimes it just wasn’t quiet. If I did something wrong, he let me know in no uncertain terms. I felt renewed and believed it was possible to get better and stronger. I am very fortunate to have met him at this stage in my life. I needed a lot of tweaking, better stroke production, better footwork, more finesse. He was aware I had no vision in my right eye, so we worked on ways to improve my focus on the ball.
We worked extremely hard and I had many people that would ask, why put up with someone who is pushing me so hard? I would respond: He is giving me exactly what I need to improve my game. Once those same people saw my improvement they came to me, asked what his name was and how to get started hitting with him.
All my progress, however, came to an abrupt end when, after wear and tear, my rotator cuff tore while in the gym working out one day. My first stop afterward was with Dr. Mary Ireland at the University of Kentucky Sports Medicine Clinic. She had helped me with some knee injuries, so I knew her well.
We discussed what surgery was going to be like and what the recovery period would be. She did not sugarcoat it. When I started to tear up, she gave me a hug and told me we can do this – it is just going to be one of the hardest things I will ever recover from.
She was leaving town and knew how important it was for me to get this process going, so she referred me to her partner, Dr. Scott Mair. I was so nervous about going in because he initially only gave me a 50/50 chance on being able to play tennis again. I remember telling him that isn’t good enough.
Post-operation, Dr. Mair said the surgery was a success. He said there was now an 85 percent chance that I would be able to play tennis again, but only if I followed his instructions and physical therapy instruction to the letter. If I tore it again, there would be no fixing it.
I was put on a massive/fragile rotator cuff plan. The first seven weeks required me to be in a specialized sling that kept my shoulder solidly in place. There was no physical therapy during this time. However, Dr. Mair, knowing my need to be active, allowed me to continue to work out in the gym and with Ron. We worked on strengthening the lower body, doing foot drills, squats, lunges and for fun we would hit occasionally – lefty, of course.
When I asked Dr. Mair why he allowed me to do this, knowing that many people who have had similar surgeries weren’t permitted to do anything, Dr. Mair’s reply was, “Barbara, your emotional state would not have good if you were made to do nothing.”
Right he was! Next, physical therapy begins. Recovery was going to put the “mind, body, spirit” theory to the test.
When I approach any kind of challenge or difficult time, my mind has a singular focus: I can do whatever is ahead of me. I will succeed and nothing will keep me from obtaining my goal.
The way I approached this massive tear of my rotator cuff was no different. I focused on the goals. To start, it was to improve my range of motion. Basically, I needed to get my arm moving again. The first few times the physical therapist moved and stretched my arm was so painful I wanted to cry. People had warned me of this but I didn’t believe them. It was hard.
My mind rationalized that this is a process, and I must get through each phase to reach my goal. I was so amazed how much your muscle atrophies and loses strength. I couldn’t even raise my arm; I couldn’t use my right hand to eat or drink, couldn’t tie my shoes. So I focused on small goals: raise my arm three inches off the arm of the couch today, then six inches a few days later.
After eight weeks of just working on range of motion, I could start to work on strength. Even though it was like starting all over, I knew I was continuing to move forward.
Working out with Ron has been vital to my recovery. He pushes me. Besides working hard on the lower body and core strengthening, he explained how each exercise was going to help me get back on the court. He never focused on the weight loss but on performing exercises correctly and getting stronger. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I could run three laps around the tennis courts in 52 seconds as I neared my 60th birthday.
There were a few times I thought I might throw up from the workouts, but the benefits were obvious: As of this writing I have lost 30 pounds, have increased my muscles mass and am down from a size 16/14 to a size 10/8. I am fitter than I have ever been in my life.
In terms of the shoulder, Dr. Mair was more than happy with my progress. And another doctor is in his practice said I was far ahead of the curve. I will admit: My body told me to slow it down at times. This wasn’t a bad thing, just a necessity. I will say this: When I return to tennis, I will never get tired on the court.
This has been the hard part. There have been quite a few setbacks along the way. Physically, even though the doctor, therapist and Ron tell me what good progress I am making, there are times I just don’t see it. Each phase of recovery is to slow for me. Each twinge or pop in my shoulder makes I wonder if I have torn it again. Even though the pain has improved greatly over the weeks, the shoulder has some type of pain every day. It’s been almost a year of living with this and it’s just getting old.
The other part is social. I always played tennis to be competitive, to exercise and to win. The social aspect was way down the list of reasons I played. Now, I miss the social part. As with any long-term recovery or even a serious illness, you are taken out of your normal activities and social surroundings. People slowly drift away and you lose contact with them. The relationships change. In some ways, you feel as if you are damaged goods.
In their place, some new people do appear, like the men who come early to the gym and work out at the same time I do. They regularly come up to me and ask how I am doing, encouraging me to keep at it. They are a good group of guys. Mike has been so caring and understanding of my need to get through this. Tommy, a friend and fellow student of Ron’s, has also been instrumental in keeping my spirits up. Ron, of course, was there as well. He would listen to me when I was feeling low, but then it was back to work. The times Ron, Tommy and I have gone to the waffle house have been so good for my spirit. Those guys make me laugh.
It has indeed taken a village to help me recover.
Back in the Game
After nine months, I finally swung a racquet. We started out with Ron dropping balls in front of me and me trying to hit them over the net from the service line. I quickly realized that getting my feet and swing to work together again wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. A lot of work will be required of me to get my tennis back to where I will be satisfied. It won’t be quick, but I will get there.
It is mid-October and I’m up to hitting two baskets’ worth of balls. I thought I might have to hold Ron back in getting me back to playing, but he is the one making sure I continue to progress slowly and not risk ruining all the hard work it has taken me to get this far.
Finally, Ron let me hit with Tommy. I haven’t been that happy on the tennis court in 10 months. It may not be the type of tennis I was playing 10 months ago, but I was playing.
Is there work ahead still be done? Of course, but I will get there. I will continue to be focused, I will continue to be strong and I will continue to enjoy every moment I am on the court.