by Sara Reid Rachels-
“Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Repeat.”
This phrase is uttered throughout the night as a mantra and sinks deeper and deeper as it’s repeated. This is what Pat Summitt, legendary Tennessee Lady Vols coach, repeated to herself during her struggle with early-onset dementia. It takes me back just a few hours before to a strange time when I never expected to be at this place hearing these words. Really, I’d given up.
At Summitt’s celebration of life inside the heralded Thompson-Boling Arena, all is quiet. Reverent. The normally day-glo orange atmosphere is cast in a blue tint. It is as if we are attending a church service and, really, we are. Pat was the consummate preacher – guiding her players, fellow coaches and friends with her words and actions. This was a person who once broke her ankle running full speed ahead on a beach towards a Great White Shark which was holding a friend captive in the water. But, she was also someone who unflinchingly declared her name to be Sandra Lee Fields when stopped by a trooper in her tiny hometown of Henrietta. She didn’t want her stern father to find out she’d been stopped for speeding.
As I sat in the arena, my mind drifted back to the nightmarish events leading up to that point. To this day, I wonder how in the world we ever made it. My best friend Heather and I were traveling to the memorial service. About 130 miles outside of Knoxville, a buzzard flew into our windshield and caved in the glass, shattering it all over us. Heather calmly called the state trooper’s office, the insurance company, and a glass company to replace the windshield.
The trooper showed up an hour later, and we were directed to a nearby rest area. There we sat for four hours waiting on improvements. The glass people showed up in the middle of a thunderstorm and declared they couldn’t fix the windshield in the rain. We needed to find some sort of awning to park under so they could do the job. Heather and I rode in the back of the car while this stranger drove us off on two exits, finding nothing except what appeared to be an old abandoned western town complete with kudzu and tumbleweeds. Finally, we pulled under an overpass, and they fixed the car.
A little after 5:00 p.m. Eastern time, we got back on the road. We needed to go 130 miles in an hour and a half—facing pouring rain and a traffic jam. Somehow, we made it to the door of the arena at 6:30 p.m. As we caught our breath amid a backdrop of music and fond remembrances, I meditated on the road that brought me to this point. Not the interstate with the terrible bird, but the intangible road of life that cannot be physically seen.
Growing up as a shy bookworm is difficult, as it was for me. Constantly being reminded that you’re quiet when you’ve heard it thousands of times is even more difficult. When you’re quiet, though, you listen more. You dream bigger. You lead with imagination and with unspoken desire.
When I was very young, Dad told me about this coach, about her great accomplishments. He told me where she came from and what she was able to do. In this way, he introduced me to basketball. As a quiet, imaginative kid, I’d play almost non-stop on the basketball goal he put up for me. No cement or anything around it. Just stuck in in the ground. When I became more accurate with my shot, the goal started leaning ever so slightly. I’d shoot at the goal, dribble around, and pretend I was playing for Summitt even though I feared she’d yell at me every chance she got.
I sought out books and newspaper articles on Pat. I watched the Lady Vols any time they got national exposure on television. My best friend and I raced to the Final Four in Atlanta one year. Tennessee eventually lost to the Diana Taurasi-led UConn Lady Huskies, but at least we saw Pat. I began to sign my first name by emulating how she made the “S” in her name. While working at a local newspaper, I wrote an article about Title IX. I went out to lunch with Pat’s old athletic director from UT Martin, Bettye Giles. She told me how women’s athletics in the old days didn’t even have a budget. On road games, the team would carpool, eat bologna and crackers, and sleep in the visitor locker room.
I also visited Pat’s college coach, the late Nadine Gearin, at her house and in her old office. Her dog nipped me in the heel, but I will never forget the visits and the talks—and all the orange in her house.
This year, I lost both my dad and my coach. I’m still very quiet (at least to those who don’t know me), and I still read with reckless abandon. But there’s something else that lives in me now—something that’s been cultivated from the words and actions of my dad and Pat. They had a lot in common, now that I think of it. They were life coaches. As a daughter, a mom, a co-worker, and in any role I play, I still remember Pat’s words: “You can’t always be the most talented person in the room, but you can be the most competitive. Here’s how I’m going to beat you. I’m going to outwork you.”
As I walked onto the arena floor for the memorial service, I gazed up at the banners I’d only seen on television up to this point. I started crying, and I just couldn’t stop. I was experiencing something even the great coach, who perished of complications from early-onset dementia, could not experience in the end. I was having memories, and they were memories tied to these banners and awards as they had become such a large part of my life growing up and maturing.
When my toddler, Felicity, gets older, I’m going to tell her the story of two people and of the game of life. I’ll constantly remind her that there are no limitations if you’re willing to venture past the labels and expectations you’ve always known.
Thank you, Pat. Thank you, Dad. “Left foot. Right foot. Breathe. Repeat.”