Young tennis player returns to court after cancer diagnosis
WEST NEWBURY, Mass. (AP) — It was a beautiful spring day, not a cloud in the sky and temperatures in the high 60s as the Pentucket and Masconomet girls tennis teams started their matches on the courts behind Pentucket Regional Middle School.
Over on Court 3, junior co-captain Maggie Aulson traded volleys with her opponent at No. 3 singles. Her mother, sister, grandfather and several close friends watched as she battled her opponent, initially losing the first set before making a comeback in the second to nearly tie the match. She wound up losing in two sets, but that wasn’t an issue to her friends and family watching. After all, the fact that she was out there in the first place was a borderline miracle.
“It doesn’t matter whether she wins or loses,” said Kim Aulson, Maggie’s mother. “It’s that she’s out there doing what she loves.”
The idea of Aulson playing tennis was nearly unthinkable nine months ago. The Groveland resident was diagnosed with bone cancer in her leg back in September, and at that point she faced a long and grueling road back to health. But even in the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis, tennis was never far from her mind.
“I went into treatment and I was really determined to play,” Aulson said. “I couldn’t give up on something I’d been doing for so long and I always wanted to be part of the team.”
Following her diagnosis, Aulson underwent treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. She went through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, and in late January went into surgery to have the tumor removed from her leg.
Even before the surgery, Aulson had already begun expressing interest to her doctors, family and friends that she wanted to try and play tennis once the spring arrived. Most were skeptical, but everyone who knew her could see how determined she was to make it happen.
“If she has her mind set to something, she’ll do it,” said Emma Milne, a tennis teammate and a close friend of Aulson’s. “That’s always been who she is and that’s how she’s been through this whole thing.”
While the surgery limited her mobility and the treatments took a toll on her stamina, she felt good enough to play once the spring season arrived. A fixture in the varsity lineup since she was a seventh-grader, Aulson was going to be back for her fifth year, and upon hearing the news her coaches and teammates were overjoyed.
“The whole team was so excited,” said Pentucket senior Hayley Palermo, who serves as co-captain along with Aulson. “I was absolutely thrilled, I couldn’t wait for her to start.”
Aulson made her season debut on April 11 against Triton. It was a dreary day in Byfield that afternoon, with temperatures lingering in the 40s with high winds blowing in off the marshes. But when Aulson stepped foot on the court, there was no place else she’d rather have been.
“I was just like so happy,” Aulson said. “It was the greatest feeling to step on the court and be able to play.”
Due to her chemotherapy schedule, Aulson isn’t able to play in every match. The treatment often leaves her exhausted and feeling ill, so third-year coach Tracey Smith has given her free rein to come and go depending on how she feels.
“We take her whenever she can play, everything is based around her schedule,” Smith said. “If she’s not here we have someone who plays doubles that steps in and plays singles. She’s a good quiet leader and I’m so happy that she can come and play and get away from her everyday stress and be normal.”
The team’s top player at full health, Aulson has mostly played No. 3 singles this year, but her decade-plus of experience has helped as she’s adjusted to her physical limitations. For example, she often looks to finish points quickly now to avoid getting sucked into a long rally, helping her conserve stamina for later in the match.
Yet when she needs to dig deep, she’s been able to do so. Several of Aulson’s matches have gone to three sets, including a thrilling win against Amesbury where she bounced back from a 1-6 second set loss to win the decisive third set 6-3.
Even when Aulson isn’t able to play, she’s always working to stay involved. Coach Smith said that after her match against Masconomet last Monday, she went in for chemotherapy and spent the time away texting advice to her teammates on how they should approach their next matches. Then on Thursday, she came out to cheer on the team against Rockport despite not feeling close to 100 percent.
“She’s very supportive of the team,” Palermo said. “It’s a great privilege to share the captainship with her and there’s no one else I’d like to share that with.”
Aulson’s treatment isn’t complete and she still has a long road to recovery ahead of her, but being able to continue her tennis career has been a huge lift during a difficult time. She’s continued to pursue her goals in other areas too — she recently took the SATs and hopes to attend college somewhere in New England to study sports management — but for now tennis has offered a refuge, a place where she can do what she loves surrounded by people who always have her back.
“I’m psyched to be playing,” she said. “It’s the greatest feeling to be on the court and having my team back me up.”
Information from: The Daily News of Newburyport (Mass.), http://www.newburyportnews.com