The comeback coach

Miller survives heart attack, leads team to national tournament

Lynn MillerLynn Miller has been coaching tennis at Wheaton for 30 years. In that time, she has taught many players many lessons. But one of the most important ones she has taught recently—through her own actions—is how to overcome obstacles.

The 57-year-old athlete suffered a heart attack in the spring of 2009. But by year’s end, she had guided the women’s team to a league tournament title for the first time and earned one accolade for her on-court athletic prowess and another for her work within the coaching profession.

“Part of being an athlete is your ability to recover from setbacks,” says Miller, who is head coach for both the men’s and women’s tennis teams. “The doctor told me, ‘You’re not doing anything for the rest of the year, including coaching, including skiing.’ And I said, ‘You don’t know me.’”

During her three decades at Wheaton, Miller’s charges have earned more than 500 triumphs, but a victory in the league tournament title match remained elusive during her teams’ five previous attempts.

That changed in October 2009, thanks to a dramatic 5–4 victory over Wellesley College in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference (NEWMAC) Tournament championship match. The Lyons will compete in May at the NCAA Tournament, the first appearance for a team coached by Miller.

Miller’s team reached the pinnacle of success after her frightening start to the year. She vividly recalls the details leading to her February heart attack, which likely occurred on Friday the 13th—a week after she had competed in a national tennis tournament in Florida and two ski races. That day, Miller experienced chest discomfort and became concerned during the following days.

Heart disease is prominent in her family, but she is an athlete, and the flu was going around campus. So she dismissed her symptoms.

“I talked to my sister,” Miller recalls. “And her husband, who’s a little older than me and is in very good shape, grabbed the phone and said, ‘Get your butt to an emergency room. You don’t mess around with this kind of stuff.’ So, of course, I waited another two days.”

Finally, after work that Monday, she drove herself to Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, where tests revealed damage. Miller received blood thinners during her sleepless overnight stay. On Tuesday, her angioplasty at Miriam Hospital in Providence revealed one artery being 99 percent blocked and another 30 percent clogged. Doctors took care of one clot and implanted a stent.

Suddenly, a fierce athlete who lived for the thrill of competition seemed vulnerable, especially to her charges, notes team captain Katherine Knies ’10. “To see her suffer such a life-threatening episode really scared us.”

Miller’s own concern over never coaching or competing again was fleeting. She heard too many stories about older athletes recovering from such ordeals and knew she would do the same.

While implementing lifestyle changes— including modifying her diet, altering work hours and taking medication—she incrementally began rebuilding her endurance. A nationally ranked skier, Miller hit the slopes again for the first time in April 2009.

“I’m a competitor; that’s what makes me happy,” says Miller. “My identity is not that I’m a heart attack victim, it’s that I’m Lynn Miller, athlete.”

Her tennis goal was to return for a national championship in Philadelphia, which began on July 13, 2009—exactly five months after her heart attack.

Competing in doubles, she was paired with a woman she had never met. And there to provide encouragement was one of the first players Miller coached at Wheaton, LynAnn Mastaj ’84, a 1982 NCAA Tournament qualifier.

The tables had turned, with pupil now serving as coach. “She said, ‘I’m giving back all the advice you gave me,’” Miller recounts. Miller and her partner nearly knocked off the second seed in that championship. She competed in five more tournaments after that, and won a national doubles crown at a December 2009 event in Florida. To cap the year, she was named the United States Professional Tennis Association New England Player of the Year for her age group, while earning a special recognition award for her contributions to coaching.

Wheaton’s only All-America men’s player, Payum Payman ’07, who helped Miller during that championship match with Wellesley and is now an assistant tennis coach at Brandeis University, said he is not surprised that Miller has forged ahead since her setback.

“Coach Miller is a warrior. She would tell us to battle, to fight hard. I could never see anything slowing her down.” Q