MISSION FIRST: Serving Up Strength




Dec. 20, 2013

by Pamela Flenke

Tennis matches are full of volleys. The goal of the volley is to put the opposing player back on their heels, to become the aggressor and control the match. Sometimes the opposition serves up a lob for you to smash, and sometimes the ball takes an unexpected bounce. How you react to the unexpected bounce can define the match. It can also define you as a person.

In October 1996, one of those unexpected bounces struck former Army women's tennis team co-captain Larraine Saavedra and her family.

Larraine is the middle child of Carlos, a former collegiate tennis player at Kean University, and Linda Saavedra, then an executive at telecommunications giant MCI Worldcom. Along with her older brother, also named Carlos, and younger sister, Natalia, the family was living happily in Elizabeth, N.J.

The two older Saavedra children took up tennis at a young age, thanks to the influence of their father and grandfather.

"My brother was so athletic when we were little," says Larraine. "Whether it was learning how to ride a bike without training wheels or always beating me on the tennis court; he just did it so easily."

Then life served one of those bad bounces. Little Carlos was constantly nauseous and wouldn't stop vomiting. The doctors initially thought he had some sort of virus that would eventually clear up. It didn't. In addition to the vomiting, one of his eyes started to close. After a series of CAT scans and MRIs, specialists in New Jersey discovered a tumor.

Six-year-old Carlos was diagnosed with a medulloblastoma tumor in the stem of his brain, the most common type of malignant brain tumor in children and, depending on at what stage the tumor is detected, could have a mortality rate as high as 70 percent.

Carlos underwent emergency surgery that lasted over 15 hours, during which the doctors couldn't stop his brain from bleeding, halting the progress of the operation. At that point, the doctors came out and told the Saavedra parents they were going to lose their only son. Overwhelmed with the thought, they both fainted.

Miraculously when they awoke, the doctors told them the bleeding inexplicably stopped and they could finish the surgery. This would be the first of four operations Carlos would endure over the coming years.

In an effort to obtain the best possible care, Carlos and his mother moved to Memphis, Tenn. They lived at the Ronald McDonald House while Carlos received treatment at St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Linda and Carlos lived in Memphis for over a year and a half as he underwent three additional surgeries.

Why her active, older brother and mother weren't home confused and angered young Larraine. "They came home for Christmas and I remember asking my mom why they weren't home, why they couldn't go to a hospital closer to home, why they left, and so on. My mom said to me, `Larraine, if you had to shave all of your hair off, if you had no eyebrows, no eyelashes and were very sick, would you want Mommy to be with you or would you want Mommy to be at home with your brother and sister?' I think that's when I realized what was going on. She put it in perspective for me."

Larraine and the family that remained in New Jersey spent a lot of time over the following months going back and forth to Tennessee to visit Carlos and Linda, especially after his surgeries.

"I remember after he came out of one of his surgeries and he couldn't speak at all. He couldn't hold his head up, he couldn't walk. It was like he wasn't there and I was devastated. I looked at my older brother who had always been so active and I just thought, `Oh my gosh, this is really serious.' I think that's when I really understood his illness."

But from devastation to hope is a shorter distance than some might realize and for Larraine and her older brother Carlos, it was realized through a simple children's toy.

"Someone had bought him a Mr. and Mrs. Potatohead set and I was playing around with it while he laid in bed, not being able to speak. I held up Mrs. Potatohead's pocketbook and showed it to Carlos and kept saying, `Pocketbook, pocketbook, pocketbook,' trying to get him to speak. A while later out of the blue he just said, `Pocketbook!' and I yelled, `Oh my gosh!' At that moment I thought he was going to be okay. And he was, and he's a miracle to everyone."

Eventually, cleared from the tumor, eight-year-old Carlos and his mother were able to move back home. But life wasn't quite back to the pace of a casual volley. The once super-active little boy was physically weakened and now dealing with a learning disability, causing Carlos to drop down to Larraine's class in school.

Despite being younger, Larraine quickly found herself in a big sister's role, a role she embraced, a role that would also lay the groundwork for her future career as a leader.

"I welcomed the idea of being the `older sister' because we were all just so grateful to have him home, so nothing else mattered. He's a miracle so we look up to him anyway. He's the strength of our family.

"The situation caused me to grow up a little faster, not necessarily faster than I wanted to, but just faster. I took on a lot responsibility, and I enjoyed it and that's probably what has gotten me into the leadership position I'm in now."

The family relocated to Boca Raton, Fla., after Larraine and Carlos finished sixth grade, and stayed there for over six years. Carlos experienced a couple complications over that time, blood clots in his brain resulting in slurred speech, and losing the ability to hear in his left ear, both effects of the aggressive radiation chemotherapy treatments he suffered through. Despite the setbacks, he was able to graduate from West Boca Raton High School alongside Larraine in the spring of 2009.

That summer, Larraine headed north to West Point, spurring a recruiting attempt by the U.S. Naval Academy and its women's tennis program about to begin its inaugural season of intercollegiate competition.

"I was originally recruited by the head coach at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, who then took the head coaching position at Navy. I went on a visit and didn't really like it that much. I didn't want to walk into a new program. A little while later I was playing a tournament in Florida that (former Army teammate) Erin Colton was also playing at and Army coach Paul Peck was there to give Erin her acceptance letter to West Point. My mom started talking to him, saying I was getting recruited by Navy but our family didn't have many military ties with the exception of her cousin."

In a small twist of a fate, Col. Jeff Lieb, Linda Saavedra's cousin and Larraine's closest military tie, was an Army buddy of Peck's as the pair had served together in the First Gulf War. Larraine spoke with Lieb about the Army and Peck, and was intrigued. After visiting the Academy, she was sold on West Point.

"I loved it. I loved the tradition. I loved that I would get to serve my country. I loved that I would get to lead."

Three years later, Larraine was in a prime leadership position as a senior co-captain of the Army women's tennis team, alongside Colton. The pair was appointed captains prior to their junior seasons, marking the first time in 15 years the Black Knights were captained by juniors, a role for which Larraine has spent nearly a lifetime preparing.

"I like to lead by example. I look back at times in the hospital with my brother and saw all the kids around us that didn't survive, or that were paralyzed. My brother could have easily been paralyzed. I'm so grateful for everything I have, for my athleticism, the ability to run and compete. It gives me such drive and appreciation and I think my teammates see that."

Larraine and her family have channeled that commitment to life elsewhere as well, establishing the Carlos Raymond Saavedra (CRS) Foundation, which raises money for the St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital and families going through similar struggles the Saavedras went through when Carlos was sick.

"The great thing about St. Jude's is everything is paid for, from food to housing to treatment to medicine. Everything. And everything they pay for is through donations, so it's really important for us to give back to them. We also know that some people can't get to St. Jude's so that's why we wanted to be able to give to them as well."

Beginning with Carlos' 21st birthday celebration last year, then adding a golf tournament last fall and most recently his 22nd birthday formal dinner, the three events have grossed over $30,000 for charity.

With Carlos' health stabilized, the CRS Foundation flourishing, and the Army women's tennis team recently winning an ninth straight Patriot League title, it's fair to say Larraine and the Saavedra family have recovered from the bad bounce they were served and they are firmly in control of this match.

Tune in Monday for GARY STEELE: Leading From The Front.

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