PSWA’s ‘Most Courageous Athlete’ of 2009
by Bernard Fernandez / Philadelphia Daily News / There was a time, not so very long ago, when Nicole Hester took some things for granted.
Like being able to walk up a flight of stairs without becoming exhausted.
Like the hair on her head.
Like basketball, the sport she has loved to play since she was a child.
And, maybe most of all, life itself.
When you are a young, vibrant woman with so much to look forward to, being told you have cancer can be a harsh introduction to the concept of one’s individual mortality. It also is a reminder that the mere ability to draw a breath or dribble a basketball are precious gifts that should be cherished, because even the most promising of lives comes with no guarantees.
(This story was written by Bernard Fernandez, a member of the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, and published in the Philadelphia Daily News, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009. A link to the story appears below)
Hester, 22, was preparing for her junior season at Drexel University in the fall of 2006 when her natural exuberance ran headfirst into the realization that there are some obstacles that even someone like herself can’t simply will away.
“At first I didn’t know what to think,” Hester, now a senior forward for the Lady Dragons, said of the lumps in her throat and armpits, and the ongoing sense of fatigue, that led to a biopsy and diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Of course, my first thought was death. But after talking to my doctor, my mother and I were told it was curable and my odds were pretty good.”
So Hester, after allowing herself a good cry, made a full commitment to the task of getting well. There were the 6 months of chemotherapy, the 3 months of radiation and a lengthy recovery program that has made her a national symbol of what can be accomplished if one has the perseverance not to yield to adversity.
Last night, at the 105th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association awards dinner, Hester picked up a plaque as the organization’s Most Courageous Athlete, certifying that she is, indeed, a role model and representative of the triumph of the human spirit. Previously she was recognized for her battle against Hodgkin’s by winning the 2008 V Foundation Comeback Award and the John H. Randolph Inspiration Award from the Colonial Athletic Association.
And, as was the case when she won those other awards, Hester still can’t figure out what the fuss is all about. People get sick all the time; doesn’t everyone just grit their teeth and do whatever they can to make the best of a bad situation?
Well . . . not always.
Heroes, to Hester, are someone else, like Lois Gilmore, the 77-year-old road racer from Wisconsin and breast-cancer survivor who received the Most Courageous Award at last year’s Philadelphia Sports Writers Association dinner.
“I was here and I know I got goosebumps hearing the story of the lady who won this award,” Hester said. “I never thought of myself as being courageous. Even receiving this award, I don’t feel I did anything to deserve it. The people around me did all the work and kept me upbeat. I think it was God’s work also. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Him.”
Maybe that’s the way it goes with genuine heroes. You’re most heroic when you don’t consider yourself to have done anything special, other than to take each day as it comes, no matter how daunting some of those days might be.
No wonder coaches from around the country who also have players dealing with cancer, and just plain regular people facing similar battles against that most dreaded of diseases, have contacted Hester and her coach at Drexel, Denise Dillon, asking for the Lady Dragons’ comeback kid to deliver the sort of pep talks that only an everyday hero can.
“They reached out through e-mails and telephone calls, asking if I could offer some words of encouragement,” Hester said, clearly incredulous at her own quasi-celebrity status. “I’m overwhelmed by it all.”
The 5-10 Hester, who has started 15 of Drexel’s 18 games this season, is averaging just 3.3 points per game, the lowest total of her varsity career. But she remains a tenacious defender, and she figures her major, sports management, will enable her to remain in basketball in some manner even after she wraps up her collegiate eligibility.
Someone asked Hester what it was like when, after sitting out the 2006-07 season, she finally returned to the court as a junior.
“I just felt affection,” she said. “It was crazy. The whole stands were going crazy . . . the 10 fans we normally have, anyway.”
Goes to show that even when Hester lost her hair (which has grown back), no one could take away her sense of humor.