Pat Summitt, the coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, has taken on daunting challenges for most of her 59 years. She has piled up accomplishments on her way to becoming the winningest college basketball coach — women’s or men’s — bringing home more victories than the likes of Bobby Knight, Mike Krzyzewski and Dean Smith.

She became a college basketball coach at a time when women’s sports were little more than an afterthought and she worked to put women’s basketball in the spotlight and to help shape the characters of the hundreds of players who came under her tutelage.

Summitt achieved her success the way many women have, by starting at the bottom. As AOL FanHouse columnist David Whitley put it:

Summitt was 22 when she got the Tennessee job, largely because nobody else wanted it. She made $250 a month, drove the bus and washed uniforms. Uniforms bought with proceeds from a doughnut sale.

Fast-forward 37 years, eight national championships and 1,071 wins. The Lady Vols have led the nation in attendance 14 of the past 15 seasons. They averaged 12,599 fans last season, a figure most men’s programs would die for.

It’s all due to Summitt refusing to compromise the values she learned growing up on a dairy farm in Henrietta, Tenn. You want resolve?

Summitt was in labor and went on a recruiting trip to Pennsylvania. She did cut the visit short because she was determined to get back and have the baby in Tennessee. She barely made it.

So it seems an incredibly cruel turn of events that now, when she should be riding high on the joy of seeing what she has built, that she has received a diagnosis of early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.

With the same class that has marked everything the coach has done, Summitt made her diagnosis public in an interview with Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post and a video in which she speaks to the fans of the Lady Vols. She plans to keep coaching as long as she possible — at least three years, she hopes.

She broke the news to her team this week. “I just want them to understand that this is what I’m going through, but you don’t quit living,” she told The Washington Post. “You keep going.”

And that’s something she already knows plenty about, because she has endured the pain of rheumatoid arthritis since 2006, the Post said.

So there it is. The dirty little not-so-secret fact about getting older. It’s not the same as being young. Ailments, conditions and diseases can become pesky companions, or worse. Even as we are positioned to enjoy some of the best times of our lives, we can be hindered or even knocked down by health issues.

Summitt says she doesn’t want “a pity party.” She is showing us that there is no shame in admitting we’re human, subject to all the frailties of life. And the way to get through these times is to face them with honesty and to be willing to ask for help. The members of the Lady Vols coaching staff will take on some new responsibilities to make it possible for Summitt to keep leading the program.

And that’s the lesson to take from Summitt’s situation: Even though we have spent large portions of our lives trying to be superwomen, sometimes the most productive thing we can do is ask others to help us.

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  • b. elliott August 27, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    What are the signs of early onset dementia? Are these different for men and women?