The stars of our sport shared stories about their heroes, both in life and on the court, and how these idols shaped who they are today. For more "My Hero" submissions, click here.
On the surface, my two heroes have little in common, but both have redefined success for me.
The first is my son Erik, who suffers from a relatively mild form of Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), a genetic connective tissue disorder that causes very fragile skin that blisters and tears from minor friction or trauma. Because of it, Erik can’t run around like other kids; if he does, it hurts like hell and produces blisters and bleeding.
Erik pushes himself to try to enjoy as normal a life as possible. Our home in Idaho has a mild climate where he can ski, golf, and go camping with relatively few issues. But Erik wanted to play tennis. He poured himself into it, playing in moccasins rather than tennis shoes because they fit looser, reducing friction. Nevertheless, he blistered and bled. During one tournament, he was in such pain that it took him ten minutes to pick up the balls between points. His opponent won easily, but I had to explain to Erik that it wasn’t fair to the other player—a tough moment for father and son.
The incredible thing about Erik is that he has done what humans do: He has adapted. He transferred his athletic drive into ice hockey, where the cool conditions and gliding (rather than running) motion minimizes friction. He can even play in tournaments, and was one of the emotional leaders of his high-school team. Hockey can be a tough sport, and Erik is well-suited to it. He scores, passes, checks hard, and doesn’t back down, not even from bigger guys. He does all that because his condition, ironically, has made him stronger.
Erik inspires me with his incredible courage, and has shown me how lucky I was to have the means to pursue my own passion. It’s an appreciation that can be applied to anybody: Can you imagine, for example, what it would be like to want to be a storyteller but lack the mental capacity to string sentences together? Of course, I’d seen people all my life who were sick or disabled, some more visibly than others, but it wasn’t until I saw up close what it took to live with EB that I truly appreciated my own luck.
The other person who altered my worldview is John O’Shea. John was a writer who covered tennis, among other sports, and had been a fine tennis player. We became friends at a Wimbledon tune-up event I played in Ireland in the mid-1980s. But John had a life away from sports: He founded the charitable organization GOAL, which had humble beginnings as host of a one-mile run for charity in Dublin. John asked me to visit Calcutta with him and there he showed me some of the most profound human suffering I’d ever witnessed—children living in the street, or in orphanages.
John’s passion and speechifying motivated a range of people to donate incredible amounts of money to GOAL, and his sheer force of will earned him an audience with world leaders, including American presidents. Under his leadership, GOAL raised more than one billion dollars, and became known as a first-responding relief organization to natural disasters such as tsunamis. Were he a CEO or a professional athlete, he’d be hailed as a genius for those numbers, but he remains a largely unknown figure outside of Ireland.
The footnote to John’s humanitarian career is that his brutal honesty cost him his soapbox. He freely called out governments for not giving enough, or for donation not getting to the right places. The politics of the situation led to his removal from GOAL.
John has suffered from cancer for a few years now but he’s still trying to make a difference. He travels and speaks in hopes of transmitting his passion to others. “I believe there’s another ‘me’ out there,” he once said to me.
I don’t believe that there will ever quite be another John, or another Erik, but their examples have helped me and others find their own best selves, and live more enriching lives. I don’t know a better definition of “hero.”
Seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Mats Wilander now runs Wilander on Wheels, a revolutionary traveling tennis experience.