An Athlete Dying Young

Tony Dispense grew up small, which is how he gained the lifelong habit of trying harder than just about anyone else. This was especially true in sports. When he played tennis, he'd stay out late practicing his strokes. While mountain biking, he seemed to push just a little more than the other riders did. He grooved his golf swing until it was a thing of beauty.

He was more determined than he was a natural. He'd set a goal and then grind his way toward it. A couple of years ago, Tony told his father that he planned on biking from his home in Evergreen to the top of Bergen Peak in two hours -- a grueling ride. And then he did it. Hard work earned him a trip to the state championships as a high school tennis doubles player. He hit buckets of golf balls until he was shooting below ninety.

At age fourteen, he ran the Evergreen Town Race, and he bowled his first 200 game less than six months after he'd started. His tennis skills helped him pick up racquetball quicker than anyone expected. And when the courts at the local health club switched over to squash about ten years ago, he was able to learn that surprisingly fast, too.

His father, Phil, first taught him the game because he loved it so much himself. But it wasn't long before Tony progressed beyond his father's game -- a milestone that thrilled Phil. "The teacher became the student," he says proudly.

Tony was not a smooth squash player -- one of those guys who look like they're never moving faster than a stroll. But he was dogged, which can take you a long way in any vigorous sport. He rolled on the front of his feet when he walked -- ball, toe, UP; ball, toe, UP -- which gave him the appearance of always being in motion, not just forward and back, but vertically, too. He grew into a lanky man, with long arms and legs, and big feet.

It seemed like he could run forever. Five years ago, I played Tony in a squash tournament. The brackets had fallen behind and so Tony was forced to play two matches back to back. Mine was the second one, and I considered myself lucky; I thought he'd be too winded to offer much of a match. We went to five games anyway.

At our club, squash games are picked up as often as they're scheduled, squeezed between -- or, better yet, in place of -- workouts. As a result, Tony was the perfect opponent. He would play anyone, anytime. He loved to win, of course, and he berated himself (sometimes loudly) for missed opportunities. But for Tony, the pleasure came shot by shot. He kept a private score based on the joy the game provided him. As our club pro, Karen Kelso, puts it, "Squash allowed him to express himself without words."

An individual's love for a sport often translates into proficiency, and Tony became quite good at squash. Our club has five permanent trophies posted on the wall nearest to the three courts, and Tony's name appears on all of them. Squash rankings are numerical, like those of tennis, and anyone who lingers at the wall for more than a moment can trace Tony's progression in the engravings. He'd been a junior champion first, then a 3.5 champ, then 4.0. He was unstoppable.

Eighteen months ago, though, his game slammed suddenly to a halt. While driving down the hill to attend a college class at Metropolitan State College on a snowy February night, Tony was rear-ended by a young, uninsured driver moving too fast for the icy conditions.

The accident was devastating. At first, he couldn't even walk. His mother, Linda, rehabbed him herself. Over the winter and spring months, she steadied Tony as he limped to the refrigerator, then to the mailbox, then around the local lake. When summer arrived, Phil started taking him golfing. Phil would play nine and Tony would sit in the cart. Then Tony would walk nine while Phil hit. One day in mid-summer, Phil planned to play a full eighteen while Tony walked with him. But as he turned to head toward the first tee, he saw Tony hauling his clubs, ready to go.

Still, it was squash that really pulled Tony back into the world. He started playing again late last summer, hitting hundreds of balls against the wall in the empty courts. He flexed his hurting knees and adjusted the white braces he always wore. After a while, he started getting in pick-up games again. Before too long, he began showing up for the busy Thursday-night challenge-court scene.

Indeed, it became clear that, as much as he was playing squash to rehab his knee, Tony was also using the game to repair his mind. The accident had been isolating. Seeing and interacting with people at the courts was important. "He used squash as his socialization," Phil says. "He was a very shy kid. It was nice to see him calling people for matches again."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer