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Rallying With God

Andrea Jaeger serves the Lord, not tennis balls.

Almost two decades ago, as she was recovering from yet one more painful shoulder surgery, Andrea Jaeger had a dream. "I was in a wide-open field," she recounts. "Groups of people were gathering around, calmly conversing."

When she began to leave, she continues, "my stepping away from the crowd caused people to react with disapproval...To my dismay, several people decided to chase after me...When I glanced back and saw that the crowd was looking to harm me, I started to run. I recognized many faces; a few were from my tennis past...The group of people following me had weapons, bats and clubs. Their facial features were distorted, and their menacing looks and screams of horror frightened me. It was all very real and disturbing."


Why do some people continue to find Andrea Jaeger so compelling? Her record as a professional tennis player doesn't really hold up to the test of time -- certainly not when compared with the best of her contemporaries, such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

Perhaps it's because Jaeger was such a novelty. One of the pioneers of a sports trend that continues to anoint ever-younger athletes, she was, at fifteen, the youngest player to have made the finals at Wimbledon at that time. She also climbed as a teen to the semi-finals of the U.S. Open. (The rules have since been changed to limit the number of matches a tennis phenom can participate in.) The pigtails and braces, the way she ran between side changes: It was all so refreshing, a change of pace for a sport tired of bad behavior.

Or maybe it was her startling rise to the top of women's tennis. An old lady by today's standards of toddler starts, Jaeger didn't enter her first tennis tournament until she was nine -- an age when present-day court divas are already veterans of several Bollettieri summer camps and countless junior competitions. Within five years, she had turned pro. By fifteen, she was ranked number five; eventually she would work her way to number two in the world.

Yet Jaeger was a flash, a footnote more than a force. While she hung around the sport for a half-dozen years, she played only three full seasons on tour, from 1980 to 1983. She never won a grand-slam tournament. And then, just as quickly as she'd arrived -- poof! -- she was gone, a burnout barely beyond her teens.

In the decades since, Jaeger has surfaced in tennis conversations -- when she does at all -- most commonly as a cautionary example, a reminder of what can go wrong when little girls are pushed too hard, too soon. Her father, Roland, a German immigrant and frustrated athlete, was a gifted coach but a strict disciplinarian, an early prototype of boorish parent/managers who were to become all too common in gymnastics, tennis and beauty pageants.

"My dad was definitely very strict," Jaeger says simply. "He was a disciplinarian with a purpose. I knew that if I didn't do something right, his form of discipline was maybe harsher than others, but not as harsh as some."

It is a gauzy memory, more respectful than accurate. There was plenty of yelling -- and, occasionally, beatings. On the eve of Jaeger's biggest match in 1983, against Navratilova at Wimbledon, Roland locked his daughter out of their rented house, unwilling to hear her plea that she'd injured her thumb. Coincidentally, Andrea ended up wandering into Navratilova's house, which happened to be on the same street.

The two pros, who twelve hours later would meet on Centre Court, commiserated. Eventually, Roland permitted Andrea to come home. Jaeger was thrashed the next day, losing in less than an hour. Yet is it any wonder the lost teenager would be unable to beat the only adult who opened a door for her the previous night?

The following year, at the French Open, Jaeger felt something stab into her back -- "like a shark bite" is how she describes it. The shoulder injury was not just a passing pain; she couldn't twist the tops off of bottles or open car doors. Later, she dropped out of college because the pain was so great that even taking notes proved impossible.

Unable to accept that he'd pushed her too fast, too hard, and that all his work and teachings were slipping away so quickly, Roland refused to acknowledge Andrea's injury, much less offer his sympathy. "I remember sitting at the dinner table, just trying to be a normal daughter, and it wasn't working," she recalls. She'd try to make conversation with Roland; he'd storm out of the room. Her mother noted that Andrea was getting fat just sitting around and not playing tennis.

 

Under intense pressure from home and hangers-on to continue playing, she attempted a comeback. In 1984 Jaeger was named to the Olympic team. She won her opening round but was forced to forfeit the second; the pain was too much.

Oddly, she didn't seem bothered by the performance. In an interview following her withdrawal, Arthur Ashe noted that Jaeger didn't look all that disappointed. She smiled; the truth was, she wasn't.


Many athletes define their lives by their accomplishments on the field. When their careers end, they struggle. Looking for meaning in real life can be a letdown after the rush of hearing 80,000 fans screaming your name every time you go to the office. So they drift. John Elway plays golf; Michael Jordan shows up at some basketball games; Ted Williams cast for bonefish off the Florida coast.

To her great credit, Jaeger never saw hitting a ball with a racquet as her destination. "Even when I was playing," she says, "I knew it wasn't going to be what I did for the rest of my life." Just as the late 1970s and early '80s gave us the best ex-president we've ever had in Jimmy Carter, it may also have produced the best ex-athlete we've ever had in Andrea Jaeger.

It started about twenty years ago. One day while on the professional tennis circuit, Jaeger's driver was taking her back to her hotel when she looked out the window and saw a toy store. On impulse, she asked him to pull over. After buying a pile of toys, she directed him to the nearest children's hospital -- New York's Helen Hayes Hospital. When she entered, "A sort of mystical energy filled the room," she says.

The children had no idea who she was -- and they didn't care. For a girl who'd grown accustomed to being treated as a freak, being among kids who themselves were often treated that way because of their diseases made Jaeger feel oddly at ease. "They didn't 'inspect' me the way so many other people did," she recalls.

Children's hospitals and treatment centers became regular stops while she played the tour. By the time she finally quit tennis for good, there was little doubt in Jaeger's mind what her calling was.

She began systematically depleting her $1.4 million bank account, spending her money on toys and programs for sick children. She took the $18,000 gold watch she'd earned from an endorsement deal to a pawnshop and used the money to buy toys for a children's hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hiding behind a wall, she watched the kids open the packages. Next to go was the Mercedes. "I was hooked," she says.

Convincing her family that she was onto something important wasn't so easy. "My parents were very disappointed," she says. "They just thought I'd lost my grasp of everything they'd taught me."

Still, Jaeger had a plan. After moving in 1989 to Aspen, where she still lives, she took a series of odd jobs, but always with the goal of helping some program for sick children. Her job at an Aspen airline-ticket counter allowed her to purchase cut-rate tickets to fly across the country to raise money. "A few of the bolder customers asked for tips on their forehands," she remembers.

She dreamed of opening a center for sick kids, a place where they could come and forget about their illnesses and hospitals and medical tests. After thousands of solicitations, she reached into her past and approached John McEnroe. His donation gave her credibility, and raising money became easier.

In 1990, Jaeger founded the Silver Lining Foundation. Two years later, she flew in her first guests, a dozen cancer-stricken kids, to spend time hiking, rafting and picnicking in the Colorado Rockies. The following year, an elderly Aspen couple donated land worth $10 million; eventually, a financier contributed money to start building.

The Silver Lining Ranch opened its doors in June 1999. Since that time, Jaeger, now 39 and still married only to her cause, has hosted hundreds of sick children and raised millions of dollars to give them a temporary, week-long respite from their illness. The camp also maintains an 800 number so that former campers can call anytime they want to talk. "Everyone has a gift," Jaeger says. "Mine is talking to and working with these kids."

Last week, while in Washington, D.C., on a fundraising tour, Jaeger stopped by local colleges and high schools to talk to students. In some ways, it marked a turning point. Here was a generation of people who didn't even know that Andrea Jaeger was supposed to be famous for playing professional tennis; she was important because she raised money for cancer patients.

 

"I loved playing tennis," she says, although she rarely picks up a racquet anymore. "But it's been so much not a part of my life for so long. I played when I was fourteen. I've put triple the amount of years into this career than I did playing tennis."


In the beginning, she had visions -- of angels in her room or of children screaming when none were present. Far from being frightened, she found comfort in them, even though her family was only nominally Christian and never attended church. "They were so profound that I knew there was no other way they came about but that God sent them," she says. "To me, it was so normal, so natural -- like the way other kids find entertainment from watching television or playing a video game.

"By the time I was eight years old," Jaeger adds, "hearing God's voice was a central part of my life." It was, she says, as if instructions were coming to her over an intercom.

The purpose of the directions haven't always been immediately clear, even in Jaeger's adult life: Why, for instance, would He direct her to telephone a particular person on a given day? (Usually for a donation to her foundation, it turned out.) And His communications could seem remarkably mundane -- telling her to buy a particular piece of jewelry, say, or to find meaning in the sequence of letters in a license plate.

But they made sense to Jaeger, and, she says, all of it has been part of His plan for her. Was it just coincidence that two years ago her father, so hard on her in her childhood, was diagnosed with cancer? He died this past December -- but not before observing his daughter's real purpose in this life, which, it turns out, had nothing to do with tennis.

"You go through life thinking things happen by coincidence," she says. "But I've always had God watching over me. God equips people. He takes ordinary people and makes them do extraordinary things."

Most recently, she says, "He told me, 'It's time to share your faith.'" Two weeks ago, Jaeger's spiritual memoir, First Service: Following God's Calling and Finding Life's Purpose, was released. It was put out by the same publisher that prints the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.

In the past, Jaeger says, she has been reluctant to discuss her faith, considering it a personal pact between her and God. Her ranch is non-sectarian. Indeed, she says, her visits to various churches have left her cold. Now, however, she wants us to know that she has been listening to God all along.

Are we really supposed to be surprised?


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