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Champions Get Back Up

Johnny Wu | Highschool Tennis

I’ve never been the most talented player on the court. 

But for the majority of my life, tennis was everything to me. I started playing when I was 7 years old, with my dad at a local park. I wasn’t very good, but I truly enjoyed myself. I continued playing casually until I turned 10 years old, at which point I started taking private lessons and attending clinics on a regular basis. I played my first tournament later that year and got absolutely demolished; “Double Bagel’d” (0-6, 0-6), by one of the top juniors in Middle States.

However, I didn’t get discouraged. Even after I lost my next four matches, I got closer and closer each time and eventually pulled off my first competitive tennis win. It was an amazing feeling, but to be honest, I can’t remember it at all due to the plethora of even more incredible moments I’ve experienced in my long journey through this sport. Most of them having occurred in my four years playing collegiate tennis for Washington University in St. Louis. While I’ve achieved success a number of times through my junior and collegiate career, I’ve learned so much more from my failures and have grown stronger from my hardships.

Instead, I separated myself by pushing my body past its limits, working harder than everyone else, and playing smart tennis. I remember running twelve 400m sprints a day in my final two years of high school and eight 400m sprints a day during the season in my first two years of college. Now I can barely run one.

Throughout my final two collegiate seasons, I battled through an insane number of injuries. It started in December ’16, right before my junior season, during which the tendonitis in my right knee started getting a lot worse. It snowballed into both of my knees by February ’17 at National Indoors, my right arm and elbow by March ’17 after spring break, my left trapezius and right ankle by the end of the season. Even though my confidence in my game fell due to handling my injuries, it was my first season playing No. 1 singles, and I felt a duty to compete my hardest and finish out the season.

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While I managed to scrap together a decent season results-wise, my mental health was the worst it’s been in my entire life. I can’t lie; it’s absolutely disheartening when you’re dealing with one injury and you feel like you’ve been able to manage it and play at a high level again. Then, a totally different injury comes out of nowhere and it’s back to square one. I invested so much emotion and energy into the season, that I would often just feel exhausted for entire days on end, during which I would be alone for most of them and not leave my apartment at all. It wasn’t healthy.

The following summer was the first summer in my entire life that I didn’t play tennis — not even once. I hoped that the extended break would alleviate my pains and help prepare me for my final season, but I was sorely mistaken. I lost a lot of muscle strength and felt pain even walking at times, even though I was still doing some light rehab. Besides the injuries, thankfully I had an amazing summer and steadily improved my mental health going into my senior year of college, and then throughout the year.

After returning to Wash U in late August and up until now, I’ve continued to manage my injuries. Throughout my final season, I dealt with not only tendonitis in both knees and right arm, but also pain in both hamstrings and my glutes. In addition, my back and right shoulder would hurt at times. None of that included the many smaller aches and pains that I ignored on a daily basis. That semester, to find the balance between staying healthy and improving my fitness, I saw a chiropractor twice a week, did rehab 2-3 times a week, wrapped 4-6 ice bags on my body every day after practice or competition, aqua jogged twice a week instead of running, and foam rolled multiple times a day. Even so, I faced setbacks throughout the semester as my body continued to deteriorate, ever so slowly. I’d be lying if I said it was easy. In fact, this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.

But you know, life isn’t fair. It’s not always happy; it’s not always fun and games. There’s a yin and yang to this world, and everything comes around to everyone eventually. So when life knocks you down, you have two choices. You can either stay on the ground, mope, and feel bad for yourself and how hard you have it, or, you get back up and fight. You grow through that suffering. Champions get back up, every single time. True success is found in the face of constant failure.

Despite all of my injuries, I had arguably the best season of my career results-wise, recording an overall record of 28-15 (15-8 at No. 1 Singles) with wins over many of the top ranked players in the country. I earned ITA All-American honors, made First-Team All-UAA at No. 1 singles, made the individual NCAA Championship, and guided my school to its 12th consecutive Elite 8 appearance in the team NCAA Championship. All of the adversity I faced made me mentally tougher than I’d ever been. And with each match I’ve played, my confidence in my game only rose.  But again, I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I thought about throwing in the towel many times, to give up on our season, to preserve my body for a life after tennis. Several times my emotions got the best of me after a tough match. But I never gave up. By the end of the season I was taking double-doses of Alleve for weeks on end to simply compete. I kept playing not out of obligatory duty, but because I wanted to. Because I love this sport. Training, traveling, competing — every experience, regardless of how painful or euphoric it might have been, helped mold and shape me into the man I am today. I continued to compete because I love my teammates. Because my former teammates poured their heart into this program and I would’ve been remiss to let their efforts go to waste.

Now that I’m done playing competitively, I have time to focus on recovery. I’ve seen a few specialists who got me on a physical therapy program for my knees, involving mainly isometric stability exercises. It’s going to be a long road, but my desire to continue leading an active lifestyle and to eventually play tennis without having to wrap up both my knees and right arm keeps me motivated. I love and have given way too much to this sport to simply abandon it for the rest of my life.

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Through my experience with tennis, I learned a lot about myself. I learned how resilient I am, how high my pain threshold is. I learned about what’s important to me in my life, about what makes me tick, about why I sacrificed what I sacrificed. Tennis took up an insane chunk of my life, and was absolutely essential in becoming who I am today. I learned just how determined I can be when I set my mind to a task. I learned not to care what other people think as I walked into our dining halls with ice wrapped all over my body countless of times. I learned to have perspective and to be grateful for everything good in my life. I learned that, if you’re patient, for every down moment there comes another positive. More than anything, I developed my character as I overcame the largest hurdle in my life up to this point. I have now worked a few weeks at my first full-time job in Washington DC and it has felt like a breeze compared to what I’ve been through. I know that whatever life throws me, I will be able to persevere regardless of the pressure or stress that might accompany it.

My advice to anyone who is recovering from or fighting through an injury or illness is to KEEP WORKING. Always try to see the positive sides of things. Stay determined. Never give up. You need to understand that to manage and recover from your injury or illness, you need to go above and beyond and do more than what the average person will do. Talk to your friends. Don’t keep your emotions bottled up. It feels much better to release those emotions than to let them overtake you. More than anything, just understand that there is so much more to life than sports, and regardless of how much your main sport means to you, your family, friends, and life outside of it are way more important in the grand scheme. Stay disciplined, and try to maintain a positive outlook. Enjoy all the beautiful little moments that accompany life, and never lose faith.

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