In Memoriam – Illinois State University Redbirds

Redbird logoWhen you are recruited to play college basketball these days, the university welcomes you into the family. Though we never called it that during early infancy of the women’s game, we knew our college team had our back. A loyalty to Illinois State University basketball remains imprinted in my soul. Even though I did not personally know the victims of the tragic plane crash outside of Bloomington, my heart mourned for the lives lost – an ISU men’s basketball Associate Head Coach, Torrey Ward, a Deputy Director of Athletics, Aaron Leetch, and alumni Terry Stralow ’74 (co-owner of Pub II in Normal), Andy Butler ’96, and Jason Jones, M.S. ’93; and former student Scott Bittner.

All seven men who were on board the plane, including pilot Thomas Hileman, were “Redbird guys,” said Athletics Director Larry Lyons ’86.

How can I feel connected to a university of over 20,000 when I haven’t lived in the state or even the country for decades? The memories of the people at that place, where interstate 74, 59, and 39 intersect in the Corn Belt, left a lasting impression.

When I played in the late 70s, we had three women’s teams, a platoon of peeps to lean on in hard times. Coaches like Jill Hutchison, Linda Herman, and Melinda Fischer invested so much in me, not only as a player but also as a person, and Schnied (Kathy Schniedwind) taped me up for every battle in Horton Fieldhouse. Nor will I forget the teammates like Slate, Von, Char, Guppy, Apple, Woody and others or those who followed after me to leave their own mark like Bethie, Bos, and Vickie.

In addition to teammates, five friends called “the family” rented a townhouse together. We pulled all nighters to prepare for finals, wet our whistle at the ol’ Pub II watering hole and scarfed down Avanti’s pizzas.

Whenever I am back in the Chicago ‘burbs, we reunite. Our “cousins” another cohort of ISU alumni meet up annually. My ol’roomies from Dunn Barton Hall still wish me happy birthday every year.

Back then I had my own sorority – a gym full of sisters – including my own biological ones, also ISU grads. During my senior year my middle sister shared our house; my baby sister shared my Redbird locker.

When the news about that the fatal return flight from the Final Four celebration in Indianapolis reached Switzerland, I felt sick to my stomach.

After every tragedy we are reminded how fleeting life is. Our paths may only cross once, but the impact we have on others is everlasting.Redbird forever

In light of that, I wanted to give a shout out to my ISU family to thank you for your support, for keeping the ties across the miles, for having my back.

Everyone is vulnerable. Every. One. Every. Day. Always.

To those folks in the Bloomington-Normal area and the ISU community who grieve for their lost loved ones, I offer my deepest sympathy. It is not enough. No, I never met you, but I know where you come from and what you represent.

Your loss is a loss for all Redbirds.

We are family.

 

Call Me Coach – A March Madness Epiphany

IMG_4467_copyEver the misfit, I struggled to find my niche as an athletic girl on the cusp of Title IX. Even in adulthood, I continued to wonder what I was supposed to be doing with my life. During March Madness when I checked scores and brackets long distance, it dawned on me. I am a coach.

Last year, I had opportunity of a lifetime to speak at the DIII Final Four at UWSP. For the first time since moving abroad, I experienced March Madness firsthand. I marveled at the evolution of the woman’s game and realized the impact the pioneers had in paving the way.

Some children know what they want to be from the time they are five-years-old; I was in my fifth decade before I figured it out. In kindergarten, my dad announced that he wanted to coach like his dad, Coach Mac. But when I was growing up coaching never crossed my mind; girls weren’t allowed to play ball, so how could a woman make a career out of coaching.

I used to think that I was born to play basketball, but when that dream ended abruptly it took me decades to grow into my real calling.

I went on to coach middle school, junior varsity, and varsity girls’ and boys’ teams. I called La Chat boys teamplays in English, German, and French and learned to swear in a dozen different languages. When the opportunity arose, I humbly assisted coaching a wheelchair basketball team in Germany. I was equally inspired teaching kids with Down Syndrome how to shoot hoops.

As I helped athletes cope with divorce, depression, disappointment, academic pressure and the death of loved ones, we held it together with jump shots, high fives and team huddles. We created a bond that one cannot fathom unless having been a part of a team.

During hard times, sometimes the only difference between hope and despair was knowing that someone believes in you.

Coaching at an international school in an international league, every year the team composite is unique – with African, American, French, German, English, Indian, Japanese, Philippine, Puerto Rican, Scottish, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Uruguayan players– but the outcome remains the same. We put differences aside to become a tight knit group in pursuit of our goals. We shared our camaraderie, competitive drive and love of the game.

In a lifetime of seasons, coaches never really know how many lives they helped shape. La Chat teamRecently, one of my former players – who now runs marathons and the Wellness Program of entire city – honored me by calling me her mentor on the front page of the local newspaper.

Though I have won my share of championships, there is no greater testimony of success when working with kids, than seeing them as productive adults.

“It’s not about trophies,” Coach Mac said it best to the Chicago Tribune in 1985, “The important thing is how you develop your athletes, how you mold their hearts and minds. The real reward is being able to look at your athletes in later years and seeing how you’ve contributed to the development of their character, so that they can serve as leaders of their community.”

In college, I thought I would save the country, as a social worker instead I became an international coach guiding kids from ‘round the globe, to go out and save the world.

I never dreamed I’d see the day when one of the senior boys would stop me in the hall to say, “What’s up, Coach.”

I have arrived! Today even the guys address me with respect.

They call me coach.

riding the rails to another tournament

riding the rails to another tournament

I’m Baacckkkk!

https://www.dreamstime.com/-image1188925Back from the brink. Again. I felt like I had one foot in the grave and the other in quicksand. Though I sure don’t feel like dancin’ yet, I can hear the music again and it sounds oh so sweet. I am recovering from what could easily have developed into a life threatening illness. Ever the athlete, I gallantly battled forward sucking up the pain until I was very ill. I’ll spare the details cause diarrhea is not the sort of thing one wants to know details about. Suffice it to say, it’s scary when no matter what you eat goes through you as fast as it hits your digestive track.

Food is life; the human body is a miracle machine.

I never stopped to think how a chomp of that apple could turn into a cell-fueling vitamin. From teeth to tongue, down the gullet to the stomach through the intestines, with the liver, gall bladder, and pancreas adding to the mix. What bio chemical processes allow enzymes to disassemble macromolecules, to take whole foods, and turn them into nutrients, to allow the body to function, grow, and repair itself? Ingestion. Secretion. Mixing. Movement. Digestion. Absorption. Excretion. Wow! The digestive system is an amazing assembly line with so many bit and bobs that can break down anytime.

I lost 15 pounds in a week while kind offers poured in from around the globe of people willing to part with spare kilos. Alas, no one would agree to allow me to choose of which body part I took the weight from.

For days, I dragged from couch to bed doubled over. Clostridium difficile colitis rates right up there at the top of the pain pyramid alongside acute sciatic and late stage labor.

I couldn’t write a blog. Heck, I couldn’t even string words together and speak a coherent sentence.canstock8394947

In the middle of the night when my intestines turned inside out and twisted into a fiery knot, I succumbed to fear. With the devil looking in me in the eye and laughing, I whispered prayers. Oh yea of little faith.

Without H2O and antibiotics, no wonder entire Third World villages are wiped out by this bad bug. With my head bowed to the porcelain throne, I praised the Lord for running water, toilet paper, and modern plumbing.

When I realized I survived another night, I offered thanks to those who stick by me during the toughest times.

To a BFF who hears my tears long distance and shushes me saying, “Nooo, don’t cry…it will make it hurt worse. Let me tell you a funny story.”

To a daughter who reminds me the latest studies show it’s okay to eat whatever sounds good when the thought of another banana made me nauseous.

To family members who drop everything to reach out with phone calls from across 6 different time zones.

To mon bonhomme who nursed me to back to health. Again. Oh, if only I could be cured by his sublime cuisine.

Never, never under estimate the power of the healing touch even through cyberspace.

Now I am impatient; I learned my lesson. I want to get in the driver’s seat and cruise back into the relentless pace of the living. But my legs still buckle under me, my head still spins and I have yet to gain a gram. Enough already. I get it.

Why me? Why not me?

Suffering does not discriminate.

I am discouraged, but my outlook will improve when I start gaining back strength physically. I’ve been down and out before especially in February. And this ain’t nothin compared to that car accident thirtysome years ago.

Ah, February, my month of reflection. I am reminded again: life is a gift. We are blessed with another day. Fill it with kindness. Surviving is tough enough. Think of the magic your body performs every bite “of life” you take.lake in winter

 

In Team Sports Girls Win Even in Loss

I am sure a lot of people back home wonder why I am still coaching in Switzerland, the land of ski, where basketball is a minor sport at best. Facilities are limited, practices sporadic, and talent questionable.

But I still get a kick out of coaching the varsity girls. Last Thursday after teaching until 5 pm, the team and I hopped on 2 different buses and 3 different trains, to travel to Zug to compete in an international SCIS tournament. We lost every game except one, but the results don’t tell the whole story.

When we were down by 20 points against the American School of Vienna, who went on to win the tournament, we came back within a couple baskets. We fought intense battles, losing by a point or two in other games.

Sometimes you play your hardest and still finish next to last. Normally I would be frustrated, but after our final game, I felt content. Our losing tournament was really a success. My players bonded together, improved with every game, and built long lasting memories. They learned to play all out every game even when falling behind.

Though I hate to lose, winning is no longer the be all of my existence. One becomes wiser with age; I know that regardless of the score, the value of team sport is immeasurable. Team competition helps girls grow stronger and healthier, better prepared to negotiate conflict, overcome set backs and believe in themselves.IMG_6207_copy

This year, my players are going through tough issues that come with adolescence. During a scary time period where terrorist attacks, date rape, and random violence reign, they take those tottering steps toward adulthood. They face challenges with heartache and tears: break ups with boyfriends, friends falling out, college rejections, academic pressures, poor grades. But when they come to practice, they run hard, forget their troubles and giggle again.

They make up crazy systems of attack with even sillier names, like double D – sounds like a bra, not a double pick, high post play – Quiznos, peanut butter, and Dani boy.

Towards the end of one game earlier in the season, when we were ahead by 20 some points, our point guard called out, “Mississippi.” I watched in disbelief as all my players sat down on the court except for our point. While our opponents froze in bewilderment, stunned by our bizarre, sit-down offense, our guard dribbled right up the middle of the key for an easy lay.

And I laughed. Gotta love Swiss basketball.IMG_6214

This would never happen in America.

Though I am still every bit as competitive; I still study the game, call crucial time outs, diagram perfect plays, I am more mellow about the outcome. I understand that by just competing and being part of a team even my least talented players will learn lessons lasting lifetimes.

Birthdays, Deaths and Miracles

P & Nic-1_copyBirthdays and death anniversary dates give us a way to cherish those still with us and to honor the memories of those we love who are no longer here. On December 7, 1990, my beloved grandpa, Ralph McKinzie “Coach Mac” died at the age of 96. I was fortunate to have him as a guiding influence throughout the first 3 decades of my life. I was especially blessed since my grandfather and I survived miracles when we were 25-year-olds. In the winter of 1918 and 1983, at an interval of 75 years, we were nursed back to health by kind strangers in hospitals on foreign soil.

On the 100th anniversary of WWI, a war that caused millions of casualties, I reflect back in gratitude that my grandfather survived a one in a million shot. In a freak accident in Germany, a stray bullet from a drunk infantryman entered a window and hit my grandpa in the back. The shot was deflected off a rib, and instead of going through him it followed the path around his rib and exited within a quarter of an inch of his heart.

Northern - bb champions 1940_copyMy grandpa recovered and went on to contribute greatly to society. Though only one of his three sons survived, Coach Mac helped shape the lives of hundreds of men in a college coaching career spanning 7 decades. His son, my dad, went on to teach and coach and raise four children, one who went on to become a professional athlete.Jim & Grandpa_copy

At the peak of my career as a basketball player, I survived a car accident that should have killed me. When our vehicle traveling at 80 miles an hour, flipped off the French autoroute and landed in an icy river during a snowy February, what were the odds of survival? From my hospital window in Verdun, I gazed out at the famous battlegrounds and graveyards of WWI heroes and wondered would I ever walk again.

Even though I still suffer from pain and repercussions of the injuries sustained, I went on to marry a cher Frenchman, raise 2 children, teach, coach, write and lead a productive life.

I adhere to the hand-me-down lessons of life that my grandfather instilled in my father who then passed on to me and I later shared with my own son and daughter. Cherish family. Give back to the community. Set a good example. Do the right thing even when no one is looking. I think they call it integrity.

Jim tossing the coin on McKinzie Football Eureka College

Jim tossing the coin on McKinzie Football Eureka College

If my grandfather were still alive he would have been 110 today. Even though he no longer walks the earth, he lives on in the hearts and minds of the family he left behind.

On November 18, 1990, his first great grandson was born in Paris; three weeks later, Grandpa died. Four thousand miles away I mourned his passing, my family comforted me saying he hung on until Nicolas arrived safely, then he left a space for our newborn son. At the time I felt guilty, as if my son’s birth facilitated my grandfather’s death, but when I see the kind young man my son has become, I understand the divinity of the life cycle. Following in his great grandpa, grandfather, and mom’s footsteps, Nic became the fourth generation to dedicate his life to teaching and coaching our youth.P & Nic-3_copy

Time and again, when plagued by pain and seemingly incurable illness, I question my purpose. The Great War of 1914-1918 took over 16 million lives and destroyed millions of others; why did my grandpa survive and thrive? Worldwide a P & Nic-2person is killed every 25 seconds in a traffic related death. Why was my life spared in that horrific accident in 1983?

Life seems like a crapshoot; each day another roll of the dice.

But one has to wonder, is our existence a coincidence? Or fate?

And miracles.

How to Take A Break From Your Body

11582865-hospital-patient-with-a-dropper-vector-illustrationOfficially, my school closed for a one-week autumn holiday, but ironically I don’t need time away from my students; the only break I need is from my body. If you battle chronic illness, you are never ever really on vacation.

For the past decades, I have suffered from an invisible illness. The name doesn’t matter, nor do the symptoms, although it frustrates the heck out me to be unable to identify it clearly. Suffice to say that just when I think I have beat the odds, it comes back to bite me in the butt, knock the wind out of my sails, slay me to the ground and wipe out hope.

Those suffering from chronic illness call it a flare up; those fighting cancer say they are no longer in remission.

I am not alone. I am one of the millions of patients that seek solutions to complaints of nondescript symptoms – headaches, pain, fatigue – that drive doctors mad.

How do you find treatment for “invisible” diseases when the evidence-based science of medicine wants proof? My bacteria, the clever little buggers, change forms to evade the very antibiotics geared to kill them.

When I am down for the count, I think of others who are fighting their own battles with cancer, leukemia, MS, diabetes, neuropathy, lupus, arthritis, crohns…the list is endless. Like my immunologist once told me, “Eventually humans lose the battle. Either the cancer cells take over or the body turns on itself in an auto immune illness.”

Next time you are knocked out, here are a dozen tips to help you cope.

  1. Call a sister or a sistah friend; women know how to listen and validate one another’s feelings.DSCN2359_copy
  2. Walk. Even on my worst days, I try to get up and meander even if only to the end of the block. Then at the end of the day when I seemed to have done nothing more than drag from the recliner to the couch, I remind myself that at least I walked today.
  3. Do NOT compare yourself to others in your friendship circle, work sphere, family network. They do not carry your burden. Only you know what an accomplishment it is to put one foot forward day after day.
  4. Listen to music, strum a guitar, sing a lullaby.
  5. Pray or meditate. Get down on your hands and knees in child pose which BTW is also a good stretching position.
  6. Watch a movie.
  7. If your eyes can focus read a funny book, an intriguing mystery, a trashy love story, anything that helps you escape your own four walls.
  8. Eat healthy. Avoid sugar. Bacteria feeds on sugar.
  9. Hit pillows. Kick walls. Break plates. You have the right to be angry. Get it out, but don’t let the anger win.
  10. Cry. Hard. Wail. Tears cleanse the soul.
  11. Let that special someone hold you.
  12. Then cut yourself some slack. Give into the pain and fatigue. Throw away the to do list. Turn off. Tune out. Rest. Rest some more.

Remember LIFE isn’t a race, it is a journey. Your contribution to society is no less valuable because you take longer to finish a task.IMG_4119_copy

How do you cope when your body lets you down again?