Player, Stringer, Director: Type 1 diabetic Aragone keeps on inspiring

Player, Stringer, Director: Type 1 diabetic Aragone keeps on inspiring

The former Virginia Cavalier standout has a full plate this week, acting as a player, tournament director and stringer at the eight-man Altec/Styslinger Foundation Exhibition in Miami.

At any level, tennis is a difficult sport to play. But in the pros, it’s undoubtedly one of the most difficult. The margins between a win and a loss are razor-thin, as are the margins between someone ranked No. 50 in the world and someone ranked No. 250. The competition is unrelenting, and typically, some part of your body almost always hurts. 

The brutal schedule allows no reprieve. Every point you win on the court is up to you. It’s hard enough battling your opponent, but for players like Venus Williams, who suffers from Sjogren's syndrome, and Danielle Collins, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, some days they are fighting two opponents at once. Every day can be a challenge.

The same goes for J.C. Aragone, who not only suffers from type 1 diabetes, but was nearly on his deathbed in 2012 due to a severe allergic reaction to his acne medication. He was comatose for three weeks. 

“I was 16, training in Boca with the USTA, about to go to South America for some futures and ITF tournaments,” Aragone said. “All of a sudden I started feeling bad and started breaking out in rashes. My parents immediately flew me to the ER. My immune system started attacking all my organs, my body was in such pain that it shut itself down for a couple weeks. When I woke up I had liver failure, kidney failure, my spleen was shutting down, I was in really bad shape. They gave me steroids and every time I would get off the medication something else would attack my internal organs.”

Doctors think it’s likely that the type 1 diabetes Aragone now suffers from arose from his internal organs being under intense stress, but they still aren’t positive. 

All in all, it took Aragone over 18 months to return to the court. It’s not like he broke an ankle as a 12-year-old; Aragone was sidelined during perhaps the most important developmental period for any tennis player. But instead of dwelling on his unfortunate timing and nightmarish health problems, Aragone is focusing on the silver linings. 

“At the time everything went by so quickly and I was just fighting to stay alive. I missed an important part of any junior players' career to gain confidence and try and make the transition into the pros. That was my plan but the setback I had changed my perspective and decided to go to college.”

Perhaps it was at the University of Virginia, where Aragone would help his team win three NCAA championships, that he developed his entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen. This week at the Altec/Styslinger Foundation Exhibition in Miami, he has balanced being a player and tournament director, plus acting as the tournament stringer.

“If I mess up Querrey’s racquet tomorrow I’m blaming it on this interview,” Aragone said. Fair enough.

Aragone at the 2017 US Open. (Getty Images)

Coronavirus and diabetes don’t mix, so Aragone wasn’t taking any chances with his, or the players safety. The attendance at Mike Simkins' private court is limited to around 10 people, and all proper precautions have been taken. There are no linespersons (just a chair umpire), and the players fetch their own set of balls to serve with.

It’s basically the opposite of the Adria Tour, which Aragone, like most of the world, believed was a tough look for the sport. 

“From the beginning I thought it was a bad look; sometimes the best athletes tend to think they are invincible. Keeping the players healthy has been a huge fear of mine. I know most these guys and I want to keep them safe.”

Aragone also organized the entire event, and raised over $80,000 for appearance fees as well as tournament expenses.

“At first I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing because I wasn’t sure I could actually do it. I guess Coach (Brian) Boland taught me some good negotiating skills.”

In order to raise money for the event and to pay each competitor an appearance fee, Aragone had to make some calls. But asking people to help pay for an event they likely can’t attend is difficult. 

“Banks aren’t going to pay for sponsorships if their clients can’t come,” Aragon said. “Advertising space on TV is great, but they want things I can’t give them right now because of the virus.”

Somehow, Aragone pulled it all together at the last minute. Recruiting the players was the easy part. The eight-man tournament features most of America’s top men's players, including Sam Querrey, Reilly Opelka, Tennys Sandgren and Steve Johnson. So far it has ran seamlessly, but the added stress of organizing the event has taken its toll. For the most part, Aragone has his blood sugar levels under control, but every day is different. 

“As great as the technology is with my sensor and insulin pump, nothing is perfect. At the end of the day it depends a lot on outside factors. My blood sugar changes all the time based on stress. I was worried this event would shut down, I was stressed, dealing with phone calls right before my match, I could hardly focus. There's so much adrenaline and different hormones that can mess a lot of things up. Different conditions, different opponents, all that has a huge impact on how I manage my blood sugar.”

To combat the daily difficulties of living with type 1 diabetes, Aragone works with a coach, a former Ironman triathlete who also has the same conditiojn. But he also acts as a coach and mentor for many people in the tennis community with diabetes. 

“I want to be able to leave an impact on the game. I would love to be a role model for the diabetes community and to inspire people with diabetes to pursue their athletic dreams. Diabetes makes playing sports more difficult, but it doesn’t force you out of the game. No one should feel like diabetes, or any difference, is holding them back.”