At first, I thought it was joke in poor taste, waiting for the social media punch line to make me sigh, roll my eyes and move on with my day. Seriously, Pat Summitt diagnosed with dementia? But sadly, it was quickly confirmed, the legendary women’s basketball coach indeed suffering from early onset dementia which will slowly erode her memory and mental function.
You don’t need to be a basketball fan or a women’s sports fan or fan of the Tennessee Lady Vols to appreciate Pat Summitt. If you measure athletic success by the numbers, she’s got them including 1,071 wins — the most by a Division I basketball coach of either gender, coaching either gender. If you measure success by quality, Summitt has created a culture that not only wins, but helps develop young women into amazing athletes, leaders, coaches and businesswomen. She inspires loyalty. She exudes class. She has helped make women’s athletic experiences relevant in American society.
Through it all, she has done what was needed. If that meant hosting bake sales to buy new uniforms and then washing said uniforms herself? Well, that’s what she did. OK, granted, that story took place a good 30 years ago, but her willingness to live her passion from the bottom to the top, from start to finish, is a life lesson worth rereading frequently.
What struck me most in the initial pieces written by Dan Fleser of the Knoxville News Sentinel and Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post is that Summitt found herself in denial. She refused to accept the diagnosis at first, almost challenging the doctors who peppered her with math questions like counting backwards from 100 by sevens. (For real, I feel with you on this one, Pat.) This amazing, sharp, talented, strong woman was, well, scared. The most amazing among us have to deal with their own fears regularly, even if they seem to never show it.
Then, in what seems typical Pat Summitt fashion, she faces the fear. An organizer and a planner, once she accepted the diagnosis of early dementia, she began looking at what she could do. To keep coaching, she will delegate more responsibilities to her staff, most of whom have been working with her for decades. She’s reading more, doing crossword puzzles and even practicing with math flash cards.
The words “determined” and “focused” are often used to describe Summitt and there’s little to doubt that she will take those characteristics honed through a career in basketball and apply them to the newest challenge in her life — her own mind.
As a women’s basketball fan whose entire life has spanned Summitt’s coaching career at Tennessee, what I have learned from her? That who I am — as a woman and athlete — matters. That passion guides everything. That being true to yourself, to what you believe in, will bring you everything you need and then some. Here’s hoping that Pat Summitt’s passion helps create her own source of healing. Because if anyone can create something out of nothing, it probably would be Pat Summitt.