A year ago at this time, the holiday season was not a very happy one for Shawnee Mission Northwest tennis player Lily Oliver.
Oliver had noticed that her play had started to decline toward the end of the high school season and while playing in the offseason at the Kansas City United Tennis Academy, but she was not exactly sure why. The effort and the commitment were there just like usual, so the fact that her game was plummeting was that much more puzzling.
“I had had a few symptoms before where there was something obviously wrong, but no major symptoms,” Oliver said. “My play decreased, and I thought maybe I was just out of shape or something like that, but as soon as things got worse, we kind of took notice of it. Then we figured out, ‘OK, something is wrong,’ and I started getting tested.”
After a stint in the hospital last December, the tests finally came back that Oliver had ulcerative colitis.
According to the Mayo Clinic, ulcerative colitis is “an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that causes long-lasting inflammation and ulcers (sores) in your digestive tract.” The disease impacts the innermost lining of the colon and rectum, and while it is not curable, it is treatable.
“I’ve done like steroids and predisone — that type of medicine,” Oliver said. “Right now it’s just switching up the medicines like immunosuppressants and finding the balance of what can suppress my immune system to stop it from inflaming and things like that.”
Prior to finding out what was ailing her, Oliver was becoming concerned about the future of her tennis career. Oliver often had to lose points on purpose when she started to experience symptoms of ulcerative colitis, and still had to at certain times this past season. Oliver felt much more comfortable on the court during her junior season, as she has found some effective treatments for the disease and has learned to play with it.
“This season, it was more finding the medication that was right. It causes problems like with your liver or the drugs won’t work anymore,” Oliver said. “I’ve had some problems. My immune system, it doesn’t work as well since I’m taking the medicine. So I’ve been getting sick really easily. It’s stuff that stresses me out and causes problems.”
The SM Northwest junior spent most of the season playing singles, but Cougars coach Ken Clow had Oliver start playing doubles shortly before the Sunflower League tournament. Oliver was paired with Tamerra Horton, and it didn’t take long for the doubles tandem to click.
“I think league was the first time we did it — league, regionals and state. I know her partner (Michaela Crowe) had some issues like with injuries and stuff,” Oliver said. “That’s why we changed at the last moment. I’ve known her (Horton) so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to put us together. I was kind of in the same ranking as her. It was definitely a surprise, but I think it turned out well.”
While a majority of the other doubles teams at the Sunflower League tournament had been paired up for most of the season, the lack of experience of Oliver and Horton playing together didn’t show, as they walked away as league champions.
Oliver and Horton kept rolling through the postseason after the Sunflower League tournament. After the SM Northwest doubles duo qualified for state, Oliver and Horton made it loud and clear that they weren’t just content with making it there. Oliver and Horton battled their way to fourth place in the doubles bracket, and helped the Cougars finish seventh as a team.
Oliver admitted that she normally prefers to play singles instead of doubles, but she really enjoyed playing with Horton. One of the benefits of playing with Horton, according to Oliver, was that the she was very uplifting. Oliver noted that when she might normally get down on herself because she wasn’t feeling her best, Horton would often encourage her to take her game to the next level.
“It’s been nice playing with Tamerra because she’s been helping me through it,” Oliver said. “Especially just the moral support has been great.”
Oliver’s mental strength over the past year has become one of her strongest attributes according to KCUT coach Skip Span.
“So the way I see Lily is when you look at a car and see say for instance a Honda Accord. You open the hood, and you see the engine of a Ferrari,” Span said. “Her spirit and her mental game, her mental strength and her willingness to keep going after it — she’s ferocious as a competitor. She’s the nicest as can be on the outside, and one of the best sports we have here in the academy.”
Span has been impressed by the improvements that Oliver has made as a tennis player, but he is more proud about how she conducts herself in whatever she does.
“She’s on the KC All-United team, which is about eight or nine of our players who embody the best academics, the best here on the tennis court — on and off the court — and how they represent their families and themselves in school and off the court in public,” Span said. “When I think about Lily, it’s always a smile just because there’s nothing you can say that takes away from her character and the same goes when she competes.”
Oliver has loved the game of tennis since she started playing at the age of 4. Even when Oliver moved to Okinawa, Japan for three-plus years from the end of fifth grade to the early stages of her freshman year when her father took a job overseas, she continued playing tennis. Oliver credited the SM Northwest program and KCUT, though, for helping her make significant strides as a player over the past two-plus years.
“I started going into lessons there (Japan), and I played on the high school team for that season that I came back. It was an island, so there wasn’t much competition and their play was different,” Oliver said. “Here I came back and it was kind of like a surprise. They have top-spin here, but not there. My game has improved so much here.”