Against the Odds: Back to the Tennis Court

“Tennis has always been a major part of my life. I started playing as a very young child and I played competitively as a teenager. In my early 20’s, sidelined by an injury, my level of stress decreased dramatically during the time I wasn’t able to play and I made a decision to walk away from the sport. I didn’t pick up a racquet for 16 years.

A lot happened in those 16 years: I went to Medical School, completed a Residency and Fellowship, got married, had a child, moved to the Upper Valley, had another child, and was diagnosed with a major medical problem that changed my life forever.

In the summer of 2009, shortly after moving to Hanover with my husband and 18-month-old son, I developed progressive weakness and numbness in my legs — until I woke up one September morning unable to walk on my own. I was admitted to DHMC and, after a slew of tests, was diagnosed with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP).

CIDP is a progressive autoimmune neurologic disease that causes significant muscle weakness and neuropathic pain. Although I was started on treatment, my symptoms progressed.

“My journey back to tennis was positively impacted by many RVC tennis players and, even if they didn’t realize the impact at the time, I will be forever grateful for their words of encouragement.”

Photo above: From left to right: Ali Ashare with Director of Tennis, Andrew Gunberg and tennis clinic partners Ashley Clapp and Susan Zak

I had extreme weakness in both legs as well as my left shoulder. My right arm had mild weakness but was very functional (which is a good thing since I am right-handed). For the next year, I used a walker to get around, went to Physical Therapy to try to maintain some strength, and tried a variety of different medications to see if anything might help halt the progression.

I also tried my best to continue to work as a physician-scientist, and to be a wife and a mom. I made a conscious decision that this diagnosis would not define me as a person, and I tried my best to establish a “new normal”. Through all of this, one of my most prevailing thoughts was that I would never be able to play tennis again. Having made the decision to quit tennis, I had never really missed playing. But somehow the idea that the choice had now been decided for me made me want to play again more than anything.

On a combination of daily medications and regularly scheduled intravenous infusions, I improved a lot, but I suffered a relapse after the birth of my daughter in 2011 due to the stress of pregnancy and delivery. Thankfully, I gradually began to improve again on a new combination of medications, and my treating physician told me that regular exercise would help prevent relapses. Therefore, I decided to set a goal of returning to the tennis court.

My first attempt to get back into tennis was unsuccessful. I contacted Mark Lewis, prior Director of Tennis at RVC, in 2013 and told him my story. I told him that I really wanted to get back into playing the sport, so he started me in the Intermediate Clinic and I was terrible.

I started back way too soon! I was not yet strong enough to deal with the complex movements that tennis requires; I quickly injured myself and was unable to play again. So I came up with a different plan. I began to work out regularly with Scott Prince, Personal Trainer at RVC, who helped me target specific strengthening exercises to the muscles that had been impacted the most.

Scott played a key role in helping me regain muscle coordination, which allowed me to start running again. Running had been a part of my exercise regimen previously, and being able to run again, after having such severe leg muscle weakness that I couldn’t even walk up a single step, was incredibly liberating!

My second attempt to get back on the tennis court occurred in June of 2015. I had recovered from all injuries, had improved my overall fitness level, and had spent a little time out on the court to make sure I was really ready. I contacted Mark again and he put me in touch with Andrew Gunberg, who had recently started at RVC as Head Tennis Pro.

I went back into the Intermediate Clinic and started taking some private tennis lessons with Andrew. I was still terrible, but it was okay. I felt more coordinated so I didn’t fear injury and, most importantly, I was having fun! I joined a USTA Team that Fall and started playing matches again. I was playing about two to three times per week and I was slowly getting better…but I was not getting better as quickly as I had hoped.

A perfectionist by nature, I can become easily frustrated if I am unable to master something the first time I try it, but coming back into tennis in the setting of a chronic illness forced me to become more patient with myself. Andrew helped me develop realistic tennis goals and he encouraged me to focus on the process and not worry about the results. In 2016, a year after coming back to tennis, I started to notice a difference in my level of play and I became addicted to tennis again.

I also started working out with Mike St. Laurence, also a Personal Trainer and Movement Specialist at RVC, who has help me with tennis-specific movement training and injury prevention. More recently, my love for the game has returned in full force. I have continued to take private lessons with Andrew (and now with new RVC Tennis Pro Tammy Arado, as well) and I have continued in team play and clinics.

While my first tennis life centered on the expectations of others, my second tennis life is truly just about me. Tennis has been such a major part of my rehabilitation, both physically and mentally. I still experience intermittent relapsing muscle weakness and neuropathic pain, particularly in response to severe stress, fatigue, or illness, but I have found that regular exercise helps alleviate symptoms.

Tennis wins and losses used to define me, but now I feel such a huge sense of gratitude for just being physically able to play. I also really appreciate having found such an amazing tennis community at the RVC. My journey back to tennis was positively impacted by many RVC tennis players and, even if they didn’t realize the impact at the time, I will be forever grateful for their words of encouragement.

While I am happy with the improvements in my game, I am confident that my level will continue to improve with the help and guidance of the phenomenal Tennis Professionals and Personal Trainers at RVC.”
Ali Ashare

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