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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
After battling breast cancer, Natalie Eggeman, right, won the city doubles tournament with Mary Didier.

She’s back in the swing

After beating cancer, woman wins on court

– You didn’t see this one on ESPN.

It didn’t make “SportsCenter,” didn’t lead the evening news, wasn’t even a banner headline above the fold in the newspaper you’re reading now.

But a week or so ago, as summer began its slow tilt toward fall, Natalie Eggeman, 49, played in the city tennis tournament for the first time ever.

Along with her partner, Mary Didier, they won the 6.0 women’s doubles. And in the mixed doubles, she and Dan O’Connell managed to give a good accounting of themselves in the 35-and-older division, which thrilled her no end.

Partly this was because it was a long time coming for someone who started out as a kid playing in the street on Avalon Drive. And part of it – most of it, actually – was because of what happened to her in 2009, when she was 46.

What happened was that Natalie Eggeman, who had picked up a racket again only a few years before, discovered she had pre-invasive breast cancer. And decided to get a little stubborn about it.

“I just knew I didn’t want to stop playing,” Eggeman recalls. “(Tennis) finally came back into my life, and I didn’t want to lose it again.”

What’s significant about that is this: Everywhere she turned she was told she was going to lose it again.

That’s because for the cancer to have the smallest chance of recurring, Eggeman would have to get a bilateral mastectomy with something called latissimus dorsi flap reconstructive surgery. That would entail taking muscle from the back to support breast implants. And that would likely be the end of Eggeman’s tennis-playing days.

“One of the first things I did when they told me what kind of surgery they were going to do was Google (the things she wouldn’t be able to do),” says Eggeman, who lost her mother to breast cancer. “I just could not believe it just popped up, ‘Tennis, swimming’; … I thought, ‘Really?’ ”

Of course, that thought was immediately followed by another: To heck with it. I’m going to play again, anyway.

“Yeah, I’m not one of those people you can say ‘No, you can never do this,’ ” Eggeman says. “If you tell me that, I will try to do it. Even if they’d said, ‘Anyone who has this surgery there’s no way you’ll ever play tennis again,’ I think I still would have tried it.”

Needless to say, it was no picnic.

When she first ventured back onto a tennis court four months after her surgery, she could lift her right arm only shoulder high, and her left only waist high. Her back was tight. Running felt “weird.”

“I couldn’t hit anything over my head,” Eggeman recalls. “I just took it really slow. It was about, I would say, a year after surgery that I could hit anything where I was comfortable doing it and didn’t feel pain, and could get a little power doing.”

She was never going to be the player she was at IPFW or Wayne High School, where she played No. 1 singles and used to play doubles at 5 a.m. in the summers with her coach, Bill Ragle. But at least she was playing again.

She got away from it, she says now, because life happened, basically. She went to work at WKJG Channel 33. She got married and had kids. It wasn’t until the family moved to Autumn Ridge in the mid-2000s that she found her way to the tennis court again, initially playing in a men’s league because there wasn’t yet a women’s league.

But still no city tournament.

“I think it was probably because even when I played No. 1 (singles) at Wayne, I probably just won half my matches,” Eggeman says. “I just didn’t think I’d do very well. I just didn’t have enough confidence.”

Now look at her.

bensmith@jg.net

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