At 59, University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt is still the pre-eminent coach, male or female, in her sport. But now her legacy will also include a significant footnote, that in her final days working as the Lady Vols' coach, she took on Alzheimer's disease as well. She is a worthy adversary, and for Americans and their families touched by this still-incurable and horrendous disease, she is an inspiration.
Summitt has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia, joining some 5.4 million Americans with varying stages of Alzheimer's — which, according to the Alzheimer's Association, is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.
Summitt joins the ranks of other public figures including former President Ronald Reagan and actors Charlton Heston and Rita Hayworth, who used their own diagnosis as a final mission in life to enhance awareness of the insidious emotional and financial toll Alzheimer's visits upon victims and their families. But Summitt's admission is significantly different: She has let America in on her diagnosis even as she strives to carry on her career in full public view.
Summitt has posted a record 1,071 victories, the most of any collegiate basketball coach. But even more telling is that in 37 years pacing the sidelines Summitt has lost only 199 games. And in an era of athletic department scandals sweeping the nation from Ohio State University to the universities of Miami and North Carolina, Summitt can proudly boast a 100 percent graduation rate for her players, paying homage to the title, "student athlete."
College sports need more leaders like Summitt. When she leaves the sidelines, it will be a big loss for the Lady Vols and the game. But in striving to stay on the court during this final battle with Alzheimer's, she inspires fellow sufferers to not let the disease define life's limits too quickly. Thanks, Coach.