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Chuck McGill: Tennis player ‘blessed to be back out here’

Bob Wojcieszak
Tera Winfree prepares to return a shot during a 4.0 women's doubles match Sunday at the Tennis Indoor Center. Winfree is playing in her first Public Courts tennis tournament since having a double lung transplant in 2009.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tera Winfree and her friend, Robin Porter, vowed in 2009 to someday play in the Women's 55 doubles division of the Public Courts tennis tournament.

At the time, that might've seemed a bit audacious to some.

Winfree was born with cystic fibrosis and her lung capacity had gradually deteriorated to the point that she could barely handle a brief walk, much less a couple sets of tennis.

She was a frail 87 pounds in 2009, and her friends helped carry an oxygen tank to matches because she no longer had the strength.

Doctors told Winfree she wouldn't survive the calendar year without a lung transplant. She was on the wrong end of 40-love facing triple life point.

"In August 2009, it got really bad," Winfree said. "I couldn't even stand. I got pneumonia and went into the hospital. They called for the transplant.

"My lungs had had it. I said, 'Let's do it.'"

On Sunday afternoon Winfree, now 57, played her second Public Courts match in as many days. Results didn't matter.

They were Winfree's first tournament matches since she underwent a double lung transplant at Cleveland Clinic on Nov. 2, 2009.

"It's amazing," said Porter, her doubles partner in the pair of 4.0 matches this weekend. "It's just unbelievable for her to be back out here."

In the spring of 2007, Winfree and Porter were playing a doubles match together in Ashland, Ky. They lost the first set 6-4 and Winfree told Porter she couldn't continue.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that most critically affects the lungs, and a lifetime of illnesses like pneumonia and the flu had taken a toll. She wasn't diagnosed with cystic fibrosis until she was 36.

Until then, her breathing issues were chalked up to bronchitis or asthma.

Winfree, a lifelong resident of Campbell's Creek and 1974 graduate of DuPont High School, spent two years on oxygen after her last competitive tennis match. She tried to remain active, but tennis was too arduous and ambitious with an oxygen tank involved.

Winfree found ways to strap the tank to her back in order to mow the grass and go biking.

That unfinished match, however, remained a source of motivation. Winfree was weeks shy of her 54th birthday when she had the transplant. She faced a long road back to Public Courts.

In the months after Winfree left the Cleveland hospital, local tennis pro Neil Rajapakse coerced her to return to the tennis court.

They hit together regularly, at first only short shots because Winfree couldn't muster the strength to hit groundstrokes over the net from the baseline.

They increased their time on the court together from 10-15 minutes to 30 minutes. Once a 4.0-rated player, Winfree started playing against 2.5 competition, then 3.0 and 3.5.

After 18 months back at 4.0, she called up Porter, a Williamson resident, and asked if she'd like to enter in this year's Public Courts Women's 55 division.

"Of course I was going to play," said Porter, who hadn't played much in the years since Winfree was sidelined.

"She's blessed to be back out here doing what she loves and she's sharing it with me. That's awesome."

Winfree and Porter followed up a win Saturday with a 6-3, 6-1 loss to Debby Berry and Kelli Hinkle on Sunday afternoon in 4.0 doubles. Those matches were a bonus to Winfree and Porter, who have yet to play in Women's 55 doubles.

Winfree doesn't lug the oxygen tank around anymore. She has surprised doctors with her lung capacity, which is in the 97th or 98th percentile. She no longer has to worry about coughing up blood during matches and trying to find a way to keep her struggles a secret on the court.

"They said I wouldn't live without the transplant," Winfree said. "So to me, just being able to play is important to me. I thought I would get back to somewhat of a normal life, but I never thought I'd get back to biking, hiking and playing tennis.

"I've always played a lot of sports, but tennis has been my passion."

Contact sports editor Chuck McGill at chuck.mcgill@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-7949. Follow him on Twitter @chuckmcgill.


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