Club Fit Member Spotlight: Club Fit’s Tennis Community Comes Together for One of Their Own
By Lisa Olney
A lot more than winning records, aggressive net play, and plantar fasciitis are cultivated on the tennis court. So are lifelong friendships with people so special that it can be hard to remember a time when they weren’t in your life. Just ask Club Fit member Maria Sanchez from Yorktown, who met some of her best friends on the Club Fit Jefferson Valley and Briarcliff tennis courts almost 25 years ago. Like family, Maria and her tennis friends have shared the celebrations of each other’s milestones along with the despair of life’s tragedies, such as the loss of one of Maria’s four vibrant, accomplished children, Maribel Sanchez Souther to breast cancer in 2016 at the age of 41.
Maribel was a five-year cross country and track star at Yorktown High School, beginning as an eighth grader. She won multiple Section 1 cross country championships and finished fourth at the indoor National Championships at two miles. Maribel attended Dartmouth from 1992-1996, winning several Ivy League titles in Cross Country, Indoor Track, and Outdoor Track, leading the 1996 cross country team to a fifth-place NCAA finish. The first Dartmouth female runner to be an All-American in Cross Country, Maribel ended her collegiate career as a four-time All American. After college, she ran professionally, coached the Hanover High School track team, and returned to Dartmouth as its head cross country coach and assistant track coach. Maribel’s time as a collegian at Dartmouth is credited as the catalyst in rebuilding the women’s track program.
In March of 2014, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center launched its annual Team Tennis to Smash Cancer fundraising event at Dartmouth’s Boss Tennis Center. Maribel presented her mom with the ultimate of family visits – play in the all-day tennis fundraiser and visit the grandkids – a definite win-win for this 4.0 USTA player. Maria was partnered with an oncologist from the Cancer Center. Little did she know, that just a month later, her new tennis friend would be the oncologist who delivered an unexpected diagnosis to Maribel: Stage 4 breast cancer. Just two and a half short years later, Maribel lost her battle against cancer on December 31, 2016.
The Hanover and Dartmouth community lost an inspiring, joyous, hardworking leader that day, evidenced by her alma mater renaming their invitational, season opening cross country meet to the Maribel Sanchez Souther Invitational. Maria’s closest tennis friends rallied around their dear friend in any way they could. When Maria shared that she was continuing her annual trek to Hanover for the 2017 tennis fundraiser in honor of Maribel just a few months after her passing, Dee Young, Margo Smith, Ginger Canfield, Andrea Oncioiu and Maria Borg packed their tennis bags and joined her in Hanover, forming the team, Maria’s Crew.
Still wondrous that her friends would drive all the way up to Hanover for her, Maria remembers thinking, “It’s too much for them, how can they do it? I was very surprised — not even our family could come up.”
This year, Maria’s crew couldn’t make it to Hanover for the fundraiser so they took the fundraiser to Club Fit, organizing a round robin on Sunday, April 29, from 3pm to 6pm at Club Fit Jefferson Valley that drew 25 women and raised $2,400 for the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Dee, Margo, and Ginger organized the event and Kelly Thomann created the format for an easy, fun, and non-competitive round-robin format, ensuring a great format for all skill levels. Maria’s son, Silvio Jr., and granddaughter, Camille, were on hand as well to cheer on this outpouring of love and support from the Club Fit tennis community.
When a last-minute venue change was required, Michael Bratt, Club Fit Jefferson Valley’s Tennis Program Director, accommodated the event and donated three courts for three hours, becoming the event’s knight in shining tennis armor. Michael provided a level of support – before, during, and after the event – beyond the call of duty, exemplifying Club Fit’s mission of supporting their members. “Mike is warm and gracious and always willing to lend a helping hand,” Margo says. “I can’t give Mike enough praise,” adds Dee. “He was so helpful and supportive.” Maria couldn’t agree more with the level of commitment Mike shows to the Jefferson Valley tennis family. “I don’t have words to describe Mike or to thank him for all the things he did. I hope he stays here forever,” says Maria. “We need somebody like that. He’s doing great things for the Club and made sure we were taken care of. He was a lifesaver.”
From graduations to grandmother showers, no other recreational sport creates such opportunities for the development of deep-rooted, lifelong friendships. Years of playing as partners, on season courts, or in the competitive USTA and club leagues, builds strong bonds and a family dynamic. “We all try to have each other’s backs,” explains Margo “and given Maria’s circumstances, there is nothing we’d rather do than be there for her in any way we can.”
Perhaps Margaret Mead said it best when she penned “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Maria Sanchez’ tennis family at Club Fit and beyond embodies this philosophy, and it is clear that their show of solidarity will remain with Maria forever. “I feel that I owe my life to them,” Maria explains. “Even if I can’t help my friends, I can and will help someone else.”