Friday, July 2, 2010

Injuries are part of the game...and yet Champions come from the heart

I grew up on Wimbledon Road. Although I am no “Anglophile,” Wimbledon has always captured my attention and imagination. Perhaps it is because it occurs during the very heart of summer, but to me, this tourney is a cut above and the 2009 men’s championship match proves just that. When Roger Federer defeated Andy Roddick, not only did he complete the longest final in Wimbledon history, he became the most successful male tennis player in the history of the game. Before an audience of tennis greats—Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver and Pete Sampras, Roger Federer won his 15th Grand Slam title.

I watched in total awe as this tremendous athlete accepted his award with simple joy, total class and curiously enough, not in total exhaustion. The match itself was memorable and yet, so was one of his insights. When asked “How does it feel to return to the number one ranking in the world as a result of this victory?” Federer replied “It’s nice to have that back. I’m aware that Rafa didn’t play. Injuries are part of the game, unfortunately.”

In this colossal moment, Federer revealed a humble truth, albeit one he benefited from (as his greatest competitor Rafael Nadal did not even enter Wimbledon due to tendinitis in both quadriceps). Injuries are part of the game. It is unfortunate and the reality of them raises many questions. Why are some athletes beleaguered by them? How do others seem to escape them? Some athletes recover from their injuries and tragically, some never do. Federer’s words stayed with me and in some small, odd way, prepared me for a new chapter in my life.

On Monday, June 28 I was officially diagnosed with Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia (ARVD). It is a rare genetic, progressive heart condition that affects the muscle of the right ventricle of the heart. I now have a pacemaker/defibrillator and an on-going relationship with my electro cardiologist. You could say it is more than an injury and it is. It is a set back and a call to a new way of living. However, like an injury it was diagnosed, treated (for now!) and will be managed for the rest of my days. In the same way that “Fed” gained from an unfortunate part of the game, it is impossible for me not to talk about all I have gained in spite of what my diagnosis has brought.

The primary insight is that the hand of God is continually at work in my life. I say this because I believe it true not only for me but for everyone. I have replayed in my mind a hundred times how what happened to me while running in Golden Gate Park could have been different. Despite that fact I wish I had made different choices prior to running that day, I cannot help but see the larger picture and the importance of it. I have always believed “the Lord is the master architect.” Although I am not certain what God is building, I recognize forcefully in my heart that God is in the middle of all of this (thanks Mary & Marty!). God is lovingly leading and guiding me, even in this mess.

The second insight is the importance of being surrounded by a community of faith. For several days, I had difficulty praying, period. I just didn’t know what I should say to God; I wasn’t in a space where I was able to listen. Fortunately, my family, friends and the St. Ignatius community did the heavy lifting. I am still humbled by the generosity, in particular the spiritual generosity of so many. Honestly, the outpouring of love and prayers was overwhelming. Because of it, my fear was often assuaged.

Third is the saving power of grace. I came to terms with my condition on the same day that a brave young woman I coached, Jill Costello died. All year, I read messages from the SI community about her battle against Stage IV Lung Cancer and then swiftly yet softly, I learned of her surrender. Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will. I sat in the hospital and wondered how I could possibly pray for myself when a young woman had suffered so much more. I knew I was raising a natural question and yet I knew God was somehow with me, even then. Luckily, that night I was able to talk to a friend who has lived with a pacemaker for many years. The next day, I found out my surgery was to be postponed until Monday. Although I did not want to stay in the hospital over the weekend, in those days of waiting, God gave me the grace to accept what my future would bring. Give me only your love and your grace that is enough for me.

Such grace is a gift from God. It is given freely and it is transformative. Fortunately, we receive God’s grace every time we take part in the sacraments. Even on those days when I found it difficult to pray, I was hungry for the Eucharist. At St. Mary’s hospital, the chaplain and I were able to discuss the beauty of Catholicism resides in the sacramental life. Nothing was was more true as I received deeper nourishment; one I have always known to sustain me—that being Jesus in the Eucharist. During the week in the hospital, as I spoke several times with our principal, I recalled that unlike Alberto Salazar a champion runner I have interviewed and who I now share a common history with (he too had his heart reset with electricity via the defibrillator) I did not receive the “Last Rites.” Patrick reminded me that I could receive the "Sacrament of the Sick" freely and as many times as needed. It was overwhelming for me to receive this sacrament from Fr. Walsh. It was almost surreal—I think of myself as a healthy person. I almost pride myself about it. In this moment, I realized my true humanity, its limitations and its dependence on God. We are all prone to injury. They are indeed part of the game.

Federer put so much in perspective that day. He added that he wasn’t playing tennis just to break records and he hopes to play the game for many more years. I share his outlook. Nine years from now I will have a new pacemaker/defibrillator and I am sure it will only be smaller and more sophisticated. With ongoing treatment, I hope to keep the scar tissue in my lower right ventricle at bay and I need to make choices to sustain it. I have hundreds of people to thank for their pure presence in the hospital. There were some true MVPs of friendship and of love. My own mother, a retired nurse deserves her own royal box, at the very least a bow, for being and doing what she says she is supposed to do as a mother.

One of my favorite gifts amid the daily ice cream cones from McDonald’s, Sports Illustrated and contraband coffee/food rations was John Daly’s autobiography: My Life In and Out of the Rough. (It is so bad it is good). Daly has battled much, much more than a few injuries. However the motto of his story is one that is written above the door opening out onto the University of Arkansas football field. Similar to Notre Dame football players who hit a sign that reads “Play Like a Champion Today,” Razorbacks hit one that may trump that of my beloved Irish. “Champions come from the heart.” Injuries may be part of the game, but I know this is true, Champions come from the heart….Amen.

Oh, and if you have followed Wimbledon this year, you know that Rafael Nadal not only won the 2010 French Open, he is currently playing in the men’s semifinals.

Image Credits
King Fed
Four Greats
Ignatius of Loyola Suscipe
Others by Stricherz' iPhone


  1. Hi Anne! Thank you for this incredible blog. I just read the email from Patrick about your journey. I wish I could be there with you right now but I'm here in Aptos. I know that you have been through the toughest part of this with your surgery but I continue to pray for you as you adjust to your new life. I'm so happy that Fr. Walsh was there for you! Don't we work at an incredible place? I know that God is with you and that his great strength is guiding you and keeping you in his warm embrace.

    Kevin and I are getting ready to go to Vienna, Budapest, Krakow and Prague on Tuesday. We will be gone till July 21. I will touch base with you when we get back.

    With all of my love and prayers, Carol Hall

  2. Great post Anne. You need to send this to Federer's publicist. I hope to borrow the John Daly book (and enjoy a John Daly soon with you as well).