Pat Summitt: A Champion of Courage

800px-Pat-Summitt-Texas-vs-Tennessee-Dec-14-08Pat Summitt.

Her name is synonymous with women’s college basketball. She is women’s college basketball. And she is suffering from early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

We tend to place our sports heroes up on a shelf. A really, really high one. And, though we expect some of them to do incredibly stupid things like beat up their girlfriends or drive drunk wearing a Telly Tubbies costume, one thing we don’t expect is for them to get sick. It’s just too human. And our sports heroes are, well, something other than human.

Pat Summitt, who up until last year, was the head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, is up on one of those shelves. Even I, who knows next to nothing about women’s college basketball, know who she is. She is the winningest coach in NCAA basketball history. She is the only NCAA coach to win more than 1,000 games. That’s male or female and it’s not like she has won 1,001 – she has won 1,098. Her teams have gone to 18 Final Fours and won 8 National Championships. She put women’s college basketball on the map. Pat Summitt is a legend.

But, as it turns out, Pat Summitt is human. She had issues with her father. She suffered seven miscarriages before being blessed with her son, Tyler. She divorced in 2008. And two years ago, she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, leading to her reluctant resignation from college basketball just about a year ago. But although the memory problems she experienced forced her to call it quits from coaching, it hasn’t stopped her indomitable spirit.

Rather than circling the wagons and quietly fighting her battle with dementia privately, Summitt summoned up the determination she has always demanded from her players, took to the airwaves and announced her struggle to the world. She also created the Pat Summitt Foundation to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s, support families of Alzheimer’s patients and fund Alzheimer’s research.

Not only has Summitt’s diagnosis not slowed her down, her post-retirement trophy case is positively bursting at the seams. She has been racking up the awards at a frenetic pace, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 2012 Pop Warner Female Achievement Award, the 2012 Global ATHENA Leadership Award, NACDA’s 2012 Michael J. Cleary Merit of Honor Award and the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Oh, and she was named the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame’s 2012 Tennessean of the Year.

While I’m sure these recognitions are quite meaningful, the reality is that Summitt now faces a gradual descent into the abyss of Alzheimer’s and the stark probability that, while the rest of the world will celebrate her basketball legacy for decades to come, there will likely come a point where she may not remember much of it. As impressive and unprecedented as her accomplishments on the court have been, what I hope people remember first about her is her courage in this chapter of her life. Courage to put her war with Alzheimer’s on display for the world to see in the hopes that it might be a lifeline for someone else. Someone else who is grappling with this devastating disease and, inevitably, losing. Losing the battle with Alzheimer’s and losing themselves.

Pat Summitt’s son says that his mom has always been like Wonder Woman and, judging from the various awards she has received for courage these last two years, it seems that much of the country agrees with him. But it seems to me that we have only begun to see the amazing woman that Pat Summitt is.

Cross-posted with permission from Draft Day Suit blog. Written by Draft Day Suit blog contributor Jill Helbling. (p.s., if you are a woman who loves sports, you will LOVE Draft Day Suit. Just sayin’.)

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License

  • Beverly Uhlmer

    There are so many ways of fighting this horrible disease with supplements, medication and cognitive exercises. I know she will investigate all these areas and share them with others so that one day this disease will no longer devastate millions of productive citizens.

  • Such a horrible disease. I really feel for her. I can’t wait until we beat it. I know we are making some progress in slowing the progression, but its not anywhere near enough.

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