Shannon Ulrich is bundled up. It’s unseasonably cold and also windy on this early May day, but she is braving the weather to watch her daughter Maddie Ulrich play tennis for Yorktown.
This won’t be the best day of Maddie’s tennis career. She and her doubles partner lose their match amid less-than-ideal conditions (though the Tigers will pull out the team victory).
But Shannon is there, just like she seems to be every time Maddie, a senior who plays soccer and tennis, has an athletic event. A melanoma survivor, there was a time in her life when Shannon was unable to go to her daughter’s sporting events. The difficult recovery from her various surgeries was enough to keep her away, but a bit of cold weather certainly is not.
“I look back now and I think, ‘I’m here,’ ” Shannon said. “I’m still here. I got so lucky. Because it wasn’t in my lymph nodes, it wasn’t anywhere else but on my face.”
The Delta and Yorktown girls tennis teams will hold their annual rivalry match Tuesday at Delta. It will be held in conjunction with the teams’ Smash Cancer benefit, with both squads coming together to raise money for cancer charities. A ceremony will begin at 4:30 p.m, with the match to follow at 5.
It’s the third time the two squads have unified for the fundraiser, and it holds special meaning to Maddie. The first time it was held, Shannon was merely a spectator. In last year’s match, she served a ceremonial ball and stood on the court with other cancer survivors.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Maddie said of her initial reaction to the cause. “Having personal experience with cancer or something, just seeing all of these people coming together and raising money for that. And I think it was last year we wrote signs for a person we knew who had cancer and it was ‘In memory of,’ or ‘In honor of,’ and I wrote one for her. Just so it made it more personal, just because I could put ‘In honor of my mom,’ because she’s a cancer survivor.”
The event has grown considerably since its inception. The inaugural effort generated $1,100 for the cause, and last year’s effort generated $4,100. T-shirt sales for this year have already surpassed last year, and more money will be raised at the match through T-shirt sales and concessions, among other fundraisers.
Maddie has noticed the event’s growth as well, saying she now gets approached by schoolmates eager to purchase a T-shirt and support the cause.
Players will wear T-shirts of various colors to raise awareness of different types of cancer. Many of those color choices will be representative of family members who have had personal experiences with those specific types of cancer. Maddie will be wearing black, the color for melanoma awareness, to honor her mother.
Maddie was in eighth grade when her mother was diagnosed, and Shannon’s treatment extended as her daughter transitioned into high school. An early procedure revealed that Shannon’s cancer had not spread beyond her face, and that her long-term prognosis was strong. She didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatments, two staples for many cancer patients.
She did need a series of surgeries, some to remove the melanoma and others to reconstruct her nose, with skin from her forehead being used to rebuild the areas affected by the initial surgeries. For a period of several months, she was mostly in the house, always recovering from the last surgical procedure and preparing for the next.
During Shannon’s recovery process, one of her goals was to go with her daughter on a trip to Rome. It was a trip Maddie was scheduled to go on with a larger group, and her mother was pushing to get better fast enough to be able to go as well. With about two weeks before the departure date, doctors cleared her to make the trip.
An unexpected twist produced the highlight of the trip for the pair. A volcanic eruption struck Iceland, causing problems for flights across Europe. Ten members of the 12-person traveling party were able to arrange flights home. Maddie and Shannon were the two left stranded, but they weren’t complaining.
Instead, they decided to do some more exploring of the city, now just as a mother-daughter tandem instead of as part of a larger group. With a six-member family (Maddie has an older sister and two younger brothers), Maddie and Shannon don’t often get mother-daughter time together without others present.
So they cherished the opportunity to explore Rome together, just the two of them without a time schedule. They made a return trip to Trevi Fountain. Shannon is quick to mention they did not eat pizza, but Maddie does remember eating lasagna. There was a meal at an outdoor cafe next to the Vatican. They also took time to buy shoes.
As Maddie remembers it, there wasn’t much talk about melanoma or cancer. The focus was on the bonding experience.
“Mainly we talked about other stuff and just enjoyed the day spent together and everything,” Maddie said. “Focusing on that we were both there, having a mother-daughter bonding day.”
Since then, Shannon has gotten a chance to watch her daughter compete in high school sports, and witness all of Maddie’s other milestones in four years of high school. Shannon still remembers the first soccer tournament she was able to attend after missing many of her daughter’s events because of her treatments. Maddie’s memory of that specific tournament has gotten foggy, only because her mother has attended so many others in the years since.
As her senior year concludes, Maddie is preparing to attend DePauw University in the fall.
“She’s an amazing person,” Shannon said of her daughter. “To see where she was five years ago until now, she’s now taller than me. And then she’s just an amazing young woman, who’s just grown up and is so mature and is such a good friend, and such a good, faith-filled young woman. She’s going to go off to college next year, but it’ll be good.”
Maddie’s physical stature is another reminder of just how much time has passed since Shannon’s melanoma treatments. When she was diagnosed, the 5-foot-2 Shannon remembers being approximately the same height as her daughter. Maddie has since left her in the dust, sprouting up to approximately 5-7. As mother and daughter have their pictures taken and conduct an interview with a reporter after the match, Shannon sometimes jumps up on her tiptoes or moves to the other side of an incline, jokingly trying to make herself appear as tall as her daughter.
Maddie found it hard to talk about her mother’ illness at the time. But as the years have passed, more of her friends and teammates have learned the story. And there is a reminder for Maddie and her teammates in the shed next to the tennis courts at Yorktown.
It’s stocked with tennis balls and bottles of water, but Shannon has made sure it also has plenty of sunscreen. She knows teenagers aren’t typically the most cautious people, and she understands it’s unrealistic to expect every Tiger to lather up with sunscreen before every practice or match.
But at least one member of the team will be sure to apply the protection. She’ll usually watch a few other teammates put it on, and remind the others of its importance.
“Every day before I go outside, I put on sunscreen,” Maddie said.