Game. Set. Match. SHSU tennis player overcomes lethal disease.
Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 17, 2013 01:10
It started with back ache.
Occasional aches and pains wouldn’t have surprised Olivia Battye. They are part and parcel of a collegiate tennis career.
But when the budding English tennis star first visited the doctor for upper back pain in 2009, the initial diagnosis didn’t quite match what Battye was instinctively concerned about.
“The doctors I went to said it was a muscle problem,” Battye said. “As an athlete, I'm more aware of my body and I knew it was something more than that.”
And it was.
Still a teenager, Battye was diagnosed in 2009 with stage four Ewing’s sarcoma - a rare disease in which cancer cells are found in bone or soft tissue.
Four years later and 5,000 miles from home, Battye is cancer free and captain of the Sam Houston State women’s tennis team.
After seeking a second opinion and having medical imaging done, doctors concluded the source of her cancer. Battye said the tumor spread from the top of her back into her nerves, causing her to experience frequent numbness in her legs.
Two weeks later, surgeons operated on her, and she spent the better part of 2010 confined to a hospital bed.
During her recovery, Battye began questioning her return to tennis.
During her treatment she produced a series of YouTube videos that SHSU head tennis coach Jim Giachino discovered during Battye's recruitment as a transfer student from Troy University. Her positive attitude throughout the videos gave insight into her character, Giachino said.
“It was amazing to see how upbeat and positive she was about the entire situation,” Giachino said. “Doctors had told her she had a 5 percent chance to live…you can see that every day is so important to her. She truly enjoys tennis and loves to play.”
For Battye, the opportunity to play collegiate tennis in the United States allowed her to reinvent herself and not be defined by the illness that plagued her earlier in her life. Although she still participates in charity events back home in England, she said she wants to disassociate herself from cancer survivor stories.
“When I came over here, I got a fresh start,” Battye said. “Back home, I felt like I was being suffocated by (my recovery) and people just saw me as a cancer survivor. Here I'm a tennis player and student-athlete.”
Before her diagnosis Battye contemplated forgoing competitive tennis to pursue her studies in England. Battye said overcoming the adversity of cancer caused a shift in perspective of the sport.
“If I hadn't gotten sick, I probably wouldn't have come to America,” she said. “I was planning on just going to college in England and focusing on school and not tennis. (Surviving cancer) made me determined to do something with my life and not just be ordinary.”
Although she originally signed with Troy University in Alabama, a series of injuries made her ineligible to compete due to the school's medical clearance policies, which led her to SHSU.
Battling cancer left her with the residual effect of extended recovery time from minor injuries, she said. Giachino recognized this and identified an opportunity when she reached out to him.
“She's a young lady with tremendous upside,” Giachino said. “I knew that if she was brought along slowly, she could be a productive and positive member of our team.”
In her first competitive season at SHSU, Battye finished with a 6-3 record, but was redshirted in the following spring due to injuries. This season she looks to improve upon that mark and is off to an encouraging start, having recently won the consolation championship for the No. 5 singles flight at the Northwestern State Demon Invitational on Oct. 12.
Battye said she wants to continue to improve her skillset as a tennis player and team captain while earning her degree in kinesiology. Giachino said any of the girls could be captain, but Battye’s teammates nominated her as the team leader with Giachino’s immediate approval.