It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.
When doctors diagnosed Dean Clower with multiple sclerosis, he was just 23 years old. His mother sobbed next to him as he received the news, but Clower, the assistant tennis coach at Lamar University and a former player at the school, had a much different reaction.
“I just said, ‘OK, how do we fight it?’” he says. “If you get broken, how do you break back?”
Life isn’t always so simple. Multiple sclerosis would stand in his way when the departing head coach at Lamar recommended Clower as his replacement.
“As a result of my diagnosis, the athletic director didn’t trust me to oversee a team of players,” Clower says, remembering the incident with a lingering hint of disappointment in his voice.
Undeterred, Clower left his alma mater in Beaumont, TX, to take another assistant position in a state known more for its livestock than its tennis. The University of Wyoming women’s team welcomed him as part of the coaching staff in 2008. His symptoms under control, he became an integral part of the team’s slow but steady success. He also contributed to the design of the school’s state-of-the-art indoor/outdoor facility, built in 2011. His dues paid, he was promoted to head coach in 2012.
The team would reach a program-high ranking of No. 56 in his inaugural season, and the city of Laramie took notice. In a town of just over 30,000 people, the University of Wyoming Cowgirls average about 350 fans for home matches. That puts them in the top 10 for attendance nationally, alongside such tennis powerhouses as the University of Georgia and Duke. Away matches aren’t much different. Faithful followers trek to schools like the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and San Diego State University to cheer on their team.
Mario Ibarra, USTA Wyoming’s executive director, has seen the home-court advantage the fans provide.
“No one in the Mountain West Conference wants to play the Cowgirls,” he says with a laugh. “The altitude of 7,200 feet and the rowdy crowd make it a very difficult place for other schools to play.”
With no men’s tennis team at the University of Wyoming, the responsibility of interacting with and attracting new followers rests with Clower and his Cowgirls. He credits the team’s community involvement for Laramie’s unlikely love affair with tennis.
As for his multiple sclerosis, he sees it as a way to teach his players by example.
“I tell the ones who are just about to graduate, ‘You have to take on life,’” he says. “’Life isn’t sunshine and rainbows. Your attitude is a choice.’”
Former University of Wyoming tennis player Christa Gecheva will always remember how Clower inspired her during her time at the university.
“If he didn’t tell you that he had MS, you wouldn’t know,” she says. “He has something so serious, and yet he’s able to get on with life without letting it hinder him in any way.”