Farewell Pat Summitt

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By Kevin Woo for Alzheimer’s Speaks

I didn’t know Pat Summitt, but I’ve thought a lot about her the past few weeks. I’ve spent a lot of time remembering her career, and what little I knew about her real life.

It’s ironic that I, along with thousands of people throughout the country, have spent time remembering Summitt because Alzheimer’s disease took her life.

Summitt, who died on June 28, 2016, was the head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee. She was 64. She led the Lady Vols to more wins – 1,098 – than any other coach (man or woman) in the history of college basketball. In her nearly four decades as head coach, her teams won eight national titles.

She began her coaching career in 1972 after the passage of Title IX. Her first contract paid her less than $250 a month, and she had to wash the teams’ uniforms. The uniforms, by the way, were purchased from the proceeds of a donut sale.

Over the next four decades, she became the face of women’s college basketball. Her success on and off the court proved that women could compete on the same level as men.  She won 15 coach of the year honors, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama, and was named the Naismith Coach of the Century.

Those statistics and awards reflect Pat Summitt, the coach. But she was so much more. She was a daughter, a sibling, a spouse, a mom and a mentor.

She was diagnosed with early onset dementia in May 2011. True to form, as she announced that she’d be leaving the basketball program she said, “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.” She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She taught those around her that when things get tough, go back to the basics – left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat. That’s how she tackled Alzheimer’s.

I discovered something as I was reading about Coach Summitt. Every player who ever played for her, all 161, graduated. Think about that, each of the 161 women who played basketball at the University of Tennessee earned a degree. Why? Because Summitt believed that education was even more important than athletics. At a time when you read about infractions with this college program or that college program, Pat Summitt ran a clean program, and made sure that everyone graduated.

I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for her to live the last five years with Alzheimer’s. When I watch the Lady Vols play, I still see her stalking the sidelines, giving that famous stare. How does someone with such energy, vitality, and drive die so young? How does someone who had to keep so much information in her head during a game take the news that she has Alzheimer’s?

Before she died Summit founded the Pat Summitt Cure for Alzheimer’s Foundation. Information on the disease and Coach Summitt can be found at http://www.patsummitt.org/.

If you or a family member is struggling with the disease, and life seems overwhelming, remember what Coach Summitt taught, “left foot, right foot, breathe, repeat.”

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