Toughest Opponent Behind Virginia Coach
March 15, 2002
By DONNA TOMMELLEO
AP Sports Writer
STORRS, Conn. — Virginia is celebrating Debbie Ryan’s 25th year as headcoach. Ryan is celebrating life.
She’s cancer-free nearly two years after undergoing surgery for pancreaticcancer, one of the most deadly forms of the disease.
“It makes the highs really high. It makes winning a lot more fun and itmakes losing not nearly as difficult,” Ryan said. “I’m much better able toput things behind me and not dwell on them.”
The illness began as a nagging stomach ache in the fall of 1999. Ryan saidit felt as if something was stuck. Tests didn’t pinpoint the problem untilnearly a year later. Right up until her diagnosis, Ryan didn’t miss a day ofwork.
Radiation followed surgery in August 2000 and what followed then wasastounding.
“When they found the cancer in me it was small and it was removable, whichis highly unusual with pancreatic cancer,” she said Friday.
Ryan has Virginia (17-12) in the NCAA tournament for the 19th straight year.Her teams made the Final Four three years in a row from 1990-92. Theeighth-seeded Cavaliers face No. 9 Iowa on Saturday in a Mideast Regionalopener. There she is reunited with Geno Auriemma, coach of top-rankedConnecticut.
Auriemma served as Ryan’s assistant from 1980-85 and was one of the firstpeople to call her when she disclosed her illness to the media.
“She was able to build a program at Virginia at a time when very few peoplewere able to do that,” Auriemma said. “She did it on her hard work. Sheoutworked everybody.”
When Auriemma learned of her illness, he was traveling with the U.S. Olympicteam and asked the team doctor about pancreatic cancer. The response wasdisheartening.
“He said forget about percentages. Nobody makes it,” Auriemma recalled.
But Ryan did and is lending a hand to other cancer patients.
“I’ve become very much a cancer recovery advocate. I raise money for thecancer services department at the Cancer Center at UVA so that otherpatients have the same kind of treatment I received,” she said.
Ryan’s surgeons were amazed her recovery.
“The tumor they took out of me was just sitting there dormant. They said mybody must have fought the heck out of it,” she said.
Auriemma is not surprised.
“All that stuff that made her really good as a coach and made her build thatprogram at Virginia is probably, in the end, what won out,” he said. “She’sone tough girl and I guess she was just not going to lose to this thing.”