Paula Umaña grew up in a family of seven in Costa Rica. From a very young age, she had an affinity for the game of tennis. By the time she was a teenager, she was the national champion in Costa Rica. Her brother, who had moved to the United States, asked her if she would want to become a professional tennis player. She wanted to, but that was an ambitious dream that she could not afford. So, she turned to prayer.
Paula began training for eight hours a day to become the best player that she could be. As she became better, God began opening doors and presenting opportunities for her to grow. Though her family could not fund her dream, her hard work paid off and by the time she was eighteen, she was the Central American Tennis Champion. After that, she moved to Miami to train with famed tennis coach Patricio Apey.
Paula’s goal was to be the best in the world. That was why she had trained so hard. She wanted to be a world champion. The best rank she ever achieved was 280th in the world, still the highest rank ever achieved by any tennis player from Costa Rica.
John Morales recently welcomed Paula Umaña onto Morning Air to talk about what it means to be a real competitor, what lessons we can learn from sports and Paula’s personal experience, and how we can find inspiration through suffering and illness.
“Anything that we want in life, we have to work hard for,” she said. “However, now that I am a speaker, I have a talk called Dare to Win. I don’t think the most important idea is to practice a lot, assuming that you will become a champion. Sometimes in life, you do something a lot, you make huge efforts, and you don’t become a champion.”
You may make your goal, but you may not. Meeting your goal is not the point, says Paula. The point is to give 100% of whatever you have available in all endeavors. That may be a sport like tennis, but the same should be applied to our family roles and to our spiritual lives. When Jesus went through His passion, He didn’t stop at the agony in the garden or scourging at the pillar, or the crowning of thorns. He underwent all of it: the torture, humiliation, the spiritual burden of our sins, and His ultimate death for us. How can we give Him anything less than our best?
After Umaña retired from tennis, she started a tennis company, coaching and training other players. Her husband and she were both devout Catholics and were always open to life and having a big family if God should provide it. When she got pregnant with her first, she wondered if she would be able to run the company while she was pregnant. As it turned out, she could!
All throughout the pregnancy, Paula found that she had enough energy and strength to do both. It was a blessing. Paula went through the same process for her second, third, and fourth children, all four daughters. Everything seemed to be going according to plan. Paula recalls joking to her husband that it would be very convenient if she could get pregnant in March, have a baby in December, and be back on the court by February to coach. Well, she did get pregnant in March. And she did have a baby in December. But by February, she was not on a court, but in a bed, paralyzed. Paula, after having been a professional athlete for decades, now found herself a quadriplegic, unable to move.
For months, the doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with her body. Finally, they were able to diagnose her with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), a neurological disorder characterized by impaired or paralyzed function of the arms and legs due to damaged myelin sheath which protects the peripheral nerves. This illness crippled Paula, literally and figuratively. She wasn’t able to sit up, walk, let alone play tennis. Holding a fork was almost impossible for her. All she could do was speak.
“I was only able to contemplate my children. They would come to me and say, ‘Mom, can you [brush] my hair? Can you hug me?’ Or even imagine having a newborn, and not being able to carry him in my arms.”
She was a practicing Catholic all her life, thoroughly devoted to the Lord. So, when the doctors came to her prescribing a bunch of medications for depression, anxiety, and panic, she realized she needed another solution, for her children’s sake. Her body was gone, but her mind was present.
When suffering comes, it comes in waves. She said she would cry a lot in the beginning, and then she would get angry. Eventually, she realized that when she focused on herself, on the tragedy, on the pain she was enduring, that was when sadness and agony would arrive. It was only in that last stage of suffering, acceptance, where she learned to submit to God’s will and focus on the others around her. The paralysis was not a death sentence, but an obstacle. Paula used that obstacle to find her way closer to God.
During her time dealing with this illness, Paula found truth in the saying that God will always bring good out of evil.
“I can tell you a hundred horrible things, but I can tell you a thousand beautiful things.”
Her experience with suffering inspired her to write her first book, 40 Gifts of Hope: Encouragement in times of sickness and suffering. Today, the CIDP has lessened and Paula is able to move around in a limited capacity. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, Serge, her four daughters, and her son.
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