I’m ashamed that I didn’t know more about Pat Summitt before she died earlier this week. Her name was only vaguely familiar to me; I’ve been reading up since, and I’m in awe.
Body image activists and thinkers are often uncomfortable with athleticism and competition because so many people can be marginalized by successes available to only a few. At the same time, appreciating the body has to include appreciating its highest achievements, without valorizing those achievements at the expense of everyone else. Pat Summitt represents a lifelong commitment to working first with her own body and then with the minds and bodies of competitive college-level women’s basketball players, and getting absolutely the best out of herself and everyone she worked with.
For any of you who are as out of this loop as I was, Summitt coached the University of Tennessee Lady Vols to nearly 1100 wins, making her the coach in all of basketball history with the most victories. In 36 years, she took her team to eight NCAA championships (a record at that time). The only thing better than her record of wins is her record of educational achievement: 100% of the students who completed their athletic eligibility during her tenure also graduated from college.
She died at age 64 of complications from early Alzheimer’s disease.
As Liz Magee said in her obituary at The Frisky, Summitt was “a truly great feminist in a beautifully non-performative way. She just did the damn thing.” In that context, Magee cites Summitt’s response when she was invited to coach the University of Tennessee men’s team: “Why would that be a step up?
When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she refused to step down, although she acknowledged that her mind was not working like it had been. With the help of associate coaches, she coached one more year before retiring in 2012.
She had a consuming passion, and she lived it to the utmost. One of her star players, Candace Parker, has become a WNBA star. After last night’s game, she spoke for a few moments about her beloved “Coach.”
Candace Parker’s postgame interview with Holly Rowe about Pat Summitt pic.twitter.com/1bWZWjD5ag
— The Cauldron (ICYMI) (@CauldronICYMI) June 29, 2016
Here’s a beautifully embodied quotation from Summitt on her own basketball career before she was a coach:
It’s difficult to explain to someone who has never competed, but a moment arrives in the life of a serious athlete when the game begins to live in you: It so occupies your mind and body that you almost become it. You gain a sense of such command over your own arms and legs that it can almost feel like flying, and you begin to crave that sensation daily. Everything else is just an interruption until you can return to it. That was me. I played, quite literally, in my sleep.