By P.J. Simmons
Early this morning, my dear friend and hero Ollie Stephens passed away after a heroic battle with cancer. My heart is aching with sadness and with empathy for all of Ollie’s family and friends. All of our lives were forever changed for the better the day we met Ollie, a man who radiated kindness, joy, positivity, generosity, and love every single day of his life.
I miss him terribly. But I take some measure of comfort knowing that Ollie’s legacy will be profound and enduring. As I write, there is a huge outpouring of love being expressed on social media by countless individuals whose lives Ollie touched. He left an indelible impact on everyone who had the privilege of knowing him, and it’s abundantly clear that the invaluable life lessons he taught us will live on all of us. We, in turn, will pass them on to countless others.
Below is the text of a speech Ollie gave last October. May we all draw inspiration from his wise counsel and remarkable example– spreading love generously, smiling and laughing abundantly, appreciating the gift of health when we have it, living life to its fullest, opening our eyes each day to the immense beauty all around us, challenging our minds with new knowledge, embracing adversity as a teacher, and making purpose our compass.
I love you, Ollie. You will be with me every day as I reflect on gratitude, every time I step on court, and every time I encounter something beautiful.
When P.J. contacted me a few months ago to ask me to give this speech, I, of course, jumped at the opportunity. I then asked. WHY? Well, P.J. has asked me to talk on handling adversity, and, due to somewhat unfortunate circumstances, I am somewhat of an expert on this these days.
As many of you may or may not know, in March of this year, I was diagnosed with a very rare form of cancer, called LCH. This is a blood cancer that can literally present itself anywhere in the body and affects about one in 1-2 million adults. As my wife said to me “If those are the odds, couldn’t you have won the lottery instead?”
Of course, chemotherapy hasn’t been much fun, but there have been so many incredible lessons learned and I can honestly say that there has been more good than bad that has come out of this journey, if it were possible, I have become closer with my wife, I have become closer to my family, particularly my sister, who I was never too close to before and I have also been humbled by the outpouring of support from my friends, particularly in the tennis community.
Here are my lessons that I would like to share with you.
Firstly, and most importantly, my wife (who has been my rock), and I made a conscious choice on the day I was diagnosed to remain positive. Yes, of course, there have been some dark times. But overall, the CONSCIOUS choice we both made has been so helpful. As my great friend and mentor, Allistair McCaw says, “Attitude is a choice,” and it really is. We have to wake up every day and make the choice to be positive and make the most of every experience and every opportunity that is presented to us.
The second lesson that I have learned is just how important it is to reach out to your friends and family during times of need. It would have been easy for Milena and me to go into a shell and become consumed with our own thoughts and worries. I am lucky enough to have a supportive family and I have made many friends through tennis from all over the world. I am here standing in front of you today to let you know that just by being here, even if it is your first time at the Tennis Congress, you are part a community of tennis friends that WILL support you in times of need. You are not as alone, you are part of the Tennis Congress family!
I’ve also learned that the small things matter and they don’t. What I mean by this contradiction is exactly what it says. The small things actually DO matter in so many ways. I can remember, the height of my disease was in June and July. I was experiencing rapid weight loss and couldn’t eat a thing. My energy levels were so low that it was difficult to leave the house and do anything. Particularly living in southern Florida, where it was so hot. In August, the chemo started to fight back and make a difference and my energy levels improved. It seems like such a trivial thing, but I was able to go with my wife to take the dog to the dog park. And that meant the world to me. Like many of you here in this room, I have traveled to some amazing parts of the world and had some truly unforgettable experiences, but to me, at that time, the insignificant act of walking my dog gave me so much personal satisfaction, that I realized, yes, it was actually important.
Again, I can relate this to tennis. As a member of the faculty, I am here to tell you that if it means a lot to you to make your forehand smoother or to help you improve your first serve percentage, which to a non-tennis person would seem so insignificant, then it means an awful lot to us as well and we will do our absolute best to help you in every way that we can. We are fellow tennis addicts!
Of course, when you confront a life-changing experience such as cancer, some of the little things become less important as well. If it’s sunny tomorrow, great! If it rains, also great!
Something that I have also discussed at length with friends is the importance of not waiting to make changes you’ve wanted to make in your life. A few weeks ago, I reached out to my friend Bob Litwin for some guidance on this speech—Bob is wise beyond words and always puts things into perspective. We agreed that this is one of the most important points I should stress.
We only get one shot in this world. Don’t be afraid to take risks, don’t be afraid to fail. I have learned to see failure as just another step forward towards your goals, make the changes you want to make TODAY. Most importantly, surround yourself with energy givers and encouragers and not those who would discourage you from following your dreams and goals.
Personally, my change is that I have always wanted to make a run at being an author as well as a tennis coach. I am currently writing a tennis coaching book with my good friend Jim Harp and also currently attempting to write a work of fiction. Thank you, Bob, for motivating me to do this.
Finally, I would like to finish by sharing a lesson from my grandmother. She was a tough old bird, to say the least, having lived through World War II in a city that was subject to daily bombing raids, she was known in the 1950’s for riding her motorcycle up and down the coast of England, which not many ladies did in those days.
She always used to say to me “The fear of ill always exceeds the actual ill itself.” And the one thing I have found from initial diagnosis, through chemotherapy, bone marrow biopsies and all the fun adventures that come with being a cancer patient, is that these words have always rung so true.
So make a choice to be positive.
Reach out to your friends and family.
See value in the small things in life.
Make the changes you have always wanted to make now.
And remember, “The fear of ill, ALWAYS exceeds the ill itself.”