Finding Strength Between The Baselines

By Andrew Wyrich

Photo Courtesy Of SUNY New Paltz Sports InformationFor months, this tennis court was the only place Paige Munroe wanted to be.

A perfect summer day set the backdrop for 13-year-old Munroe’s first steps back onto her hometown tennis courts. Thickets of lush trees surrounded the Pioneer High School courts in Ann Arbor Mich., a feature Munroe had always found calming during the weekly tennis lessons spent on these very same courts for most of her childhood.

But today wasn’t like all of the long summer afternoons she had spent on the courts earlier in her life. Today she wasn’t learning how to swing the racquet properly or how to adequately maneuver an opponent’s volley.

Today, Munroe was just happy to be standing there.

As she listened to the comforting soft “thwack” of tennis balls meeting their racquets, Munroe watched her friends and teammates scramble across the court in their signature purple and white jerseys.

Finally, after months of seemingly never-ending rotations of radiation treatment and chemotherapy, taking one more step forward would finally allow her to begin making up for stolen time.

For more than an hour, Munroe felt like she was home again.

Shifting back and forth down the court, she could feel the muscle memory begin to resurface. With each swing, she was getting a larger taste of something she had wanted for so long.

But soon, the sun that had comforted her only an hour earlier began to betray her.

“The most striking thing for me about that first day is the phrase ‘wilting flower in the sun,’” Munroe said.  “It was such a gorgeous day. The sun was so bright and it set such an atmosphere for the first time I stepped back onto a court. I was getting ready to go – blooming almost – and then all of sudden I couldn’t.”

Exhaustion soon set in. Tired, breathless and frustrated, Munroe continued to push. No one, let alone herself, was going to stop her from getting back to playing the sport she loved.

After trying to mentally block out the fatigue for another sun-beaten half hour, Munroe finally succumbed. Today was only a stepping stone, she told herself. Months ago, Munroe wasn’t wondering if she would ever step back onto a tennis court, but whether or not she would live.

***

It was Valentine’s Day of 2006 when Munroe was first admitted to the hospital for frequent night sweats, trouble breathing and a small bulge on her neck. The next day – her father’s birthday – she was diagnosed with stage two Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“The moment they told me I had cancer, I started crying,” Munroe said. “Not because of the sickness, but more because I was going to lose my hair.”

In the span of six months, Munroe would undergo a whirlwind of emotions, treatments and appointments anyone would have trouble dealing with – let alone a 13-year-old with a horizon that included varsity level tennis in her near future.

Doctors at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital performed a biopsy on Munroe’s lymph nodes that came back positive. Almost immediately, she was told she would begin “short-term” treatment, consisting of a permanent I.V. tube that ran through her arm directly into her heart.

As she took a tour of the infusion center on her first day of treatment, Munroe nervously passed the ornately decorated rooms. As she was told the procedure doctors would follow for her treatment, Munroe stared at the bright purple chairs and IV units sitting squarely in the middle of each room.

Something struck her. She had seen them before.

“We were about ready to start hooking me up to the machine and I remembered looking at the chair,” Munroe said. “Then, I  remembered having a dream almost two months before getting sick when I was in this exact location and having this IV in my arm in that chair. That’s how I knew I was in the right spot. I had been forewarned. It was supposed to be like that.”

For the next four months, Munroe would undergo chemotherapy in 21 day cycles. The treatment would run for eight hours on Monday, four hours on Tuesday and two hours on Wednesday. After a week-long break, she would have another day of treatment, for two hours.

“The treatment takes everything from you,” Munroe said.  “It starts off not so difficult, but the longer and longer it goes, the more the medicine takes its toll.”

Munroe said soon she felt so weak she couldn’t do simple tasks such as carry a jug of milk up the stairs.

While some might have been overwhelmed by the obstacles ahead of them, Munroe saw another opponent she needed to beat.

“There were times I would visualize myself being healthy – I knew this was in my hands – there were moments where I knew I was going to be ok,” Munroe said. “That had to come from me though.”

Lying in bed only a week after her treatment had begun, Munroe stared at her ceiling. It was decorated with cards from various friends and family she had received strung on streams of crisscrossing ribbons. There, she decided how to defeat the most arduous opponent she would ever face.

As an IV slowly pumped chemicals through a winding tube and into her arm, Munroe knew the answer.

“I understood that I am ingesting this medication and it is going to slowly eat away at the fast moving cells in my body – that is literally taking place as I lay there,” Munroe said. “Once I realized that, I knew the medicine was treating the sickness, but that is not what this is all about. I remember thinking about taking apart the tumor. I had this 5-inch tumor in my chest and I imagined just sucking it to pieces and ripping it out. I could almost take it apart and let it disintegrate mentally and not give it any strength or power over me. I wasn’t denying that it was there, but I knew it was going to go away – and I was going to make it go away.”

***

While Munroe may have only been on the court for one-fifth of her team’s first practice in June of 2006, it was a pivotal moment for the life-long tennis enthusiast.

Before being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Munroe was a rising star in her school district’s tennis program. As a middle school student excelling in not only tennis, but other sports as well, Munroe was expected to immediately jump to the varsity level once she entered Ann Arbor Pioneer High School.

She credits her love for tennis to the very same coach who would watch her that June – Tom Pullen, or “Brick” as he is known to the Ann Arbor community.

Brick served as a foundation for Munroe for so long, offering her free tennis lessons from the moment she could hold a racquet. So it was only fitting that he would be standing next to her the day she would begin to rebuild her tennis career.

“He is one of those people who will be at your wedding and he’ll be there truly wanting to see it,” she said.

However, at first, Brick didn’t tell the then 13-year-old Munroe what she wanted to hear.

At her coach’s request, Munroe was forced to sit on the sidelines as she honed her skill for her entire freshman year. While originally hoping to push herself further toward her goal of competing once again, Munroe said she soon understood the rationale behind the choice. To make up for the lost time, she would spend hours practicing, getting her body back to the physical shape it had been in prior to her diagnosis.

“He comes from an older school of thought – you know, when you used to have cancer you would die,” Munroe said. “But he was such a big teddy bear. He was always there for me, and always so supportive of me with my cancer.”

While it was frustrating to sit on the sidelines for an entire year as her team ascended into the Michigan state championships, Munroe said looking back on the hours spent watching prepared her for what was to come.

“I needed that time to recuperate,” Munroe said. “I was able to go to the state tournament and watch my team compete first hand. I used that time to learn the pressure that comes along with those games and what it would take to compete in something like that.  I think, in the end that it worked out for the better that way.”

***

Munroe’s time away from the game would soon become an afterthought. After securing a spot on the team to start her sophomore year in high school, Munroe would begin to dominate Michigan high school tennis for the remainder of her high school career.

The year after returning from her one-year hiatus, Munroe and her doubles teammate amassed a 35-1 record and won a Michigan state championship.

In the span of three years, Munroe would be named the best four doubles player in the state in 2007, the best two doubles player in 2008 and the best single doubles player in 2009.

On top of her personal accolades, Munroe’s team would be crowned state champions in three consecutive seasons.

“It felt like such a blessing,” Munroe said.  “I had this extreme experience one way – which was a great gift in its own, I treat it as a success in my life also – and to go from that success and then win three straight state championships in a row – I just said ‘Wow. I can achieve what I want if I put my mind to it.’”

Munroe said she was a changed player after her treatment. Her months of radiation and chemotherapy and subsequent year of watching her team brought a new perspective to the sport she loved. Her struggles off the court mirrored those she found herself in on the court.

“We all get frustrated and everything, but having character is something important,” Munroe said. “For me, having cancer and then applying that on the court in a situation when you are down or upset and don’t know what to do but shuffle – I learned that you just need to take a breath and go back to basics, square one, and start over.”

When she was 16 years old, Munroe wanted a permanent way to symbolize this fight. She decided to get a tattoo.

She thought back to the journal she kept during her treatment. Every day, she chronicled her thoughts, emotions and activities, trying to process what was happening to her. She called the journal Dolly Bird.

“I felt it having a name gave me someone to talk to,” she said. “It gave me a release that I really needed at the time.”

Dolly Bird came to represent a part of herself that she had left behind and became the inspiration for the tattoo.

“I had wanted to get something to symbolize my treatment, but not be overt like a ribbon or survivor, so I got the feather,” Munroe said.

As her senior year in high school came to a close, her elevated play across Michigan did not go unnoticed by potential college tennis programs – including SUNY New Paltz.

***

Much like her high school career, Munroe’s constant pushing and determination culminated in triumph early in college.

Munroe posted a 9 -2 singles record and a 9 – 3 doubles record in the fall 2010 season for the Hawks, helping them toward their eventual SUNYAC Championship.

“Coming and winning, it was…crazy,” Munroe said. “The satisfaction of having been part of the team and winning – I felt so lucky. I appreciated it so much.”

Since the championship in her freshman year, Munroe has continued to solidify herself within the New Paltz tennis program. Over her three years as a Lady Hawk, Munroe has compiled a 61 – 27 overall record, been named to multiple All-SUNYAC First-teams, named to SUNYAC All-Conference teams and garnered a SUNYAC All-Academic Team award.

Now, as she enters her final year in New Paltz, Munroe said she is struggling with the decision to become a captain.

Despite her continued success on the court, Munroe admits she has had her fair share of college-aged mistakes. She now lives off-campus after being kicked out of the dorms for a drinking violation, something she said was yet another lesson she learned.

“I have this war with myself over how good of a role model I am,” she said. “I know how to push people, but at the same time I have messed up. It was sort of a wakeup call for me. By my own hands I can create great things and by my own hands I can take it away. I had to learn that.”

***

In the midst of a grueling summer match in-between her senior year of high school and her first year at SUNY New Paltz, Munroe thought of what would become her second tattoo.

Her opponent wouldn’t back down, pushing Munroe further and further in the match. Her legs began to feel weak. She wanted to give up. The sun was beating down on her once again. The game she loved was taking its toll.

But then it hit her.

“Forca,” a Portuguese word that means strength, power, effort and force, would soon become Munroe’s second tattoo. Not only would the word symbolize her outlook on the sport she loved, but also a reminder of how she wanted to live every day for the rest of her life.

After everything she had been through, after conquering every opponent in front of her, Munroe knew the tattoo would always remind her of what the cancer had taught her.

The tattoo “symbolizes how you need to seize the strength you might not even know you have,” Munroe said. “That’s what’s happened to me a lot in my life.  When I don’t think I have any strength, all I have to do is look down. It’s written right on me. It’s not going anywhere.”

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