Read this powerful story by Sally Jenkins about University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, who, at 59, was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Despite the disease, the legendary coach says, “You don’t quit living. You keep going.”
In fact, Summitt isn’t even planning on quitting coaching–at least not for a while. For now, she’ll rely on her assistants to help manage games. While she is still in the early stages of the disease, it is not clear how long she’ll be able to remain on the sidelines.
Summitt is the most successful coach in the history of women’s basketball–her teams have won more than 1,000 games and eight national championships. Last year, even as she began showing signs of yet-undiagnosed cognative and physical problems, her team won 34 games and lost just 3. Coaching a top college sports team is a high-stress and high-profile job like few others. Every step (and mis-step) is scrutinized. Plus, a coach has a tremendous obligation to college kids who are, themselves, under a microscope. In early stages of dementia–even in that pressure-cooker–Summitt did her job well.
For now, as Jenkins so beautifully puts it, “there is a faint sense of dimming, as if a jar has been placed over a candle.”
The hard-charging Summitt admits she was in denial about her disease until recently. She’d misplace her keys or cellphone, or forget the name of the hotel where her team was staying. But she’d rationalize this confusion as something she had always had, or the consequences of being an overly-scheduled multi-tasker. But when she’d sometimes be unable to recognize opponents’ plays, she realized something was wrong. She finally agreed to a workup at the Mayo Clinic, where her dementia was diagnosed.
What happens next? Unlike many, Summitt likely has the financial resources she’ll need to help pay for care as her disease progresses. And she has a huge circle of friends and colleagues. But she is divorced and it appears that her primary caregiver will be her son Tyler, who is just 20.
A college junior, Tyler is just becoming aware of what the future has in store for his mother, and for him.
This will be no Hallmark moment. The progression of dementia is difficult to predict for any individual patient, but we all know how the game is likely to end. And it won’t be easy. Not for Pat and not for Tyler.
Still, Summitt is now confronting Alzheimer’s, talking publicly about the disease, and using her experience to teach others–which is what, after all, a good coach does. Kudos to Pat Summitt for sharing her story and to Sally Jenkins for writing it.