Isabella Saylor knew the answer right away.
While attending the Anthony Munoz Leadership Seminar last Wednesday, Saylor, a junior at Ross High School (Hamilton, Ohio) and varsity tennis player, was asked to name an inspirational figure in her life. The query netted an easy response: Gerri Bolin.
Bolin, the varsity boys and girls tennis coach at Ross High School, was recently crowned the Southwest Ohio Conference Co-Coach of the Year after a season where she endured chemotherapy and radiation while battling Stage 2 breast cancer.
“She (Bolin) has taught us that life throws a lot of obstacles, but you cannot let that stop you from doing the things you love,” Saylor said. “Life is about celebrating accomplishments, not wallowing in pity. The best way to find a cure is to make a difference in another’s life.”
Bolin, a member of the Western Brown (1999) and Mount St. Joseph Athletic Hall of Fame (2014), doesn’t like to draw attention to herself. But she felt it necessary to open up about her journey that started on a seemingly normal day last March with hopes to spread a message of awareness to women.
“This is not an easy conversation for me. I haven’t talked about it with a lot of people,” Bolin said.
Bolin and her sister have always been adamant about having yearly mammograms. This came from their family history. Both their mother and grandmother passed away due to complications from breast cancer.
But last March, Bolin had a loaded Thursday sketched in her calendar that included an annual checkup, one she was on the verge of postponing until summer.
“I almost cancelled that appointment. I was taking a half-day off work, it’s hard to plan for a sub and tennis season had just started,” Bolin explained. “I could just re-schedule it and put it off until summer because I’m just so busy right now. And for whatever reason, I didn’t. Thank goodness.”
Doctors found a spot on Bolin’s chart. An ultrasound turned out suspicious and a same-day biopsy revealed a positive lymph node and Bolin was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.
A welcomed distraction
Bolin knew she was in for the fight of her life, but that wouldn’t stop her from being on the tennis court for the spring season. Her boys had worked way too hard and being there with the team, in any capacity, was better than the alternative.
“I would’ve had a good reason to stop, but I would’ve felt like a quitter, too,” Bolin said. “The more I was home, the more I would spend thinking about it, looking things up. Tennis got my mind off of it and helped me build my strength and endurance.”
Nate Ziepfel was getting ready for his senior season when Bolin came forward with the news. The team was taken aback by the announcement, but inspired by Bolin’s perseverance as she continued coaching after a lumpectomy in March and the beginning of chemo in April.
“It was heartbreaking because we knew how much we meant to her,” said Ziepfel, now a freshman at UC. “We all thought she wasn’t going to be able to coach us. But she was there every single practice. Every match she was there. It’d be freezing cold and she’d be outside pushing us to do our best, even though it was probably really hard. The amount of motivation that we saw in her was completely phenomenal.”
It was a quick turnaround for Bolin once the boys’ season ended in mid-May, just a few weeks into her chemo treatment. Next came summer sessions with her girls’ squad and radiation set to begin in July.
Saylor first met Bolin when she was 7-years-old at a tennis clinic. When Bolin was made the girls varsity coach, Saylor, a freshman at the time, knew she wanted to play.
After practices last season, Bolin was there helping her get the desired backspin on a slice shot she had struggled with all summer.
“Anytime I would ask if she had to be somewhere she would say ‘don’t worry about me,’ ” Saylor said. “She would go to work, then she would leave for treatment. Immediately after, she would come to our practice or match, then she would go back to her classroom and plan out her lesson for the next day. She would never show that she had any weakness – absolutely amazing.”
Support from all around
When Bolin was diagnosed, one of her first moves was to head south. She drove to Lexington to break the news to her son, Justin, a three-time SWOC Tennis Player of the Year at Ross before heading to the University of Kentucky to study animal science and music.
Although he was 160 miles away for most of the treatments, Justin was moved by the fight conveyed by his mother.
“I could’ve never done something like that. She never stopped. She’s really an inspiration with everything she’s been through,” he said.
Butler County is the eighth-most populated county in Ohio. But when news broke about Bolin’s diagnosis, the entire Ross community offered a tight-knit, small-town feel when it rallied behind a coach in need of support.
It started during the boys season. Ziepfel and company raided every thrift shop they could find in search for anything pink. The result was pink headbands, racket grips, bracelets and socks. The timing couldn’t be better for Bolin, who was still in the early stages of the diagnosis with more questions than answers.
“I’m not one that likes to cry in front of people and the tears came out because I was still processing it all. I was trying to soak it all in and wasn’t sure about the treatment plan. It was very overwhelming,” Bolin said.
On the girls’ side, pink tie-dye T-shirts with breast cancer awareness ribbons were produced to honor Bolin. Whether it was a parent, player, student or faculty member, Bolin felt the love that Ross was eager to give.
“The overwhelming support that I have felt from the Ross community was unbelievable,” Bolin said. “The notes, the cards, text messages, e-mails just to check in to see how I was doing… They helped me want to continue to beat this and to get stronger.”
The last seven months have been a learning experience for Bolin. She’s gained valuable knowledge of dealing with the trying times that cancer can bring and wants to share that with others.
Finding someone to relate to was one of the biggest takeaways for Bolin. For her, it was former college basketball teammate Patty Seta-Tabb, who was cancer-free in June 2012 after a double mastectomy following an April diagnosis.
“Just knowing that she’d been through the same thing was helpful,” Bolin said. “She gave me information about what to expect and helped me think about questions to ask. It was very beneficial to know somebody personally that had been through it versus just reading about other people’s experiences.”
Bolin doesn’t know what would’ve happened if she cancelled that appointment in March. The disease could’ve progressed even further and into additional lymph nodes throughout her body. The new appointment wouldn’t have been until July or August, when Bolin was finishing up radiation.
That’s why Bolin can’t stress enough to get tested. As redundant as the message is, its importance is unrivaled. The breast cancer death rate in the United States has dropped nearly 40 percent since mammogram use became popular in the 1980s, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute.
“The message I would like people to know is: don’t hesitate to get your mammograms and get checked,” Bolin said. “If you have not had one, schedule it. Because in one year, mine went from not unnoticeable to stage 2. The more educated you are, the better questions you can ask your doctor.”