Paula Umaña is a former professional tour player from Costa Rica. Between 1992 and 2000, Umaña represented the Costa Rica Fed Cup team in a total of 33 ties, winning 9 sgls and 10 dbls rubbers for her country.
This is a story of an incredible woman who overcame a life-threatening challenge and still works on the tennis courts of Atlanta every day!
MIRACLES DO HAPPEN
The incredible story of Coach Paula
By Rich Neher
When I connected with Paula Umaña on LinkedIn I had no idea about her history until I read "Former WTA tour player who became a quadriplegic due to a nervous system disorder."And then I realized that she is still teaching in Atlanta and I knew I had to interview her. Writing is a little difficult for Paula so she sent over an audio file and that worked well, too. I decided to let her tell her story and only ask a few questions. Hope you like it.
After listening to her story I decided I will never ever again complain about my knee or shoulder again. I am saluting Paula Umaña for overcoming a rare illness in a way that inspired me and hopefully inspires some of you, as well. Paula is ready, willing, and able to come to your club or organization to speak to your members or employees. I have put her contact information at the end of this article.
TCB: Hello Paula, thank you for speaking with us. Tell us where you're from and how you got started in tennis.
PU: I was born in San Jose, in the beautiful country of Costa Rica. I was the youngest of seven children. One day, when I was six years old, my dad came home and said he got a membership at the Costa Rica Tennis Club. I remember I had a wooden racquet and was hitting a ball against a wall. That’s where everything started for me. I immediately loved it and at 12 years old I was already the number 1 junior player in Costa Rica. My dad was a dentist but he was only able to afford one trip abroad for me.
TCB: How did your tennis develop up until you started playing on the tour?
PU: In 1990 my sister married a tennis coach, José Naranjo, who was a leukemia survivor. He was also the first tennis pro certified by PTR in Costa Rica. He opened the first tennis academy in Costa Rica, he called it Orange Tennis Academy. He asked me if I wanted to become a professional tennis player. I didn’t know what that entailed but it was my dream come true. I was 14 or 15 and became homeschooled so I could play tennis eight hours a day at my brother-in-law’s tennis academy.
My first sponsor was a big hotel company. I will never forget the day they brought me a bag with racquets, shoes, uniforms, everything, and they offered to pay for all my trips. That was my opportunity and subsequently, I became Central American Champion, a rank I held for nine years. I was practically the best tennis player in the history of Central America. (Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama.)
When I was 18 years old I moved to Florida and started to practice at Patricio Apey’s Tennis Academy in Key Biscayne. That was the Academy where Gabriela Sabatini played. Patricio helped me and guided me on playing on the tour, getting points, and becoming a professional tennis player. My best rank was 281 (dbls) and 624 (sgls).
I represented Costa Rica in Fed Cup for nine years in a row. Then I went to university (Universidad Internacional de las Américas in San José) and studied international trade. In 1998/99 the ITF hired me to represent a program in Costa Rica titled “School Tennis Initiative.” I taught PE teachers how to teach tennis and put 10,000 kids into the sport. The ITF would ship all the equipment.
After that, I founded “Tennis for Fun” with the same kind of programs but more private. I also represented my country in the Central American Games where I met my husband who is a Chiropractor. We moved to Atlanta, Georgia and I realized how big tennis was here. I started teaching a lot of ALTA teams but my passion was more to work with children.
In 2003/04 I started “Coach Paula, LLC” providing After School Programs and Summer Camps in Atlanta schools. This became a big success and we were very busy. I learned how to be flexible as a tennis coach and how to create courts on any flat surface.
Then I had children. I taught tennis while being pregnant with four children. During the fifth pregnancy, I felt tingling and numbness in my body. First I thought this was normal but then I had extreme symptoms and after childbirth, I became very weak. One night my legs gave out under me and I had to go to the hospital where I had tons of treatments but my condition turned out to be very difficult to diagnose. The first month I got some plasma exchange treatments but my legs became paralyzed. I was concerned about my tennis work and wanted to get back on the court until I realized how serious my condition actually was. Fortunately, my staff at Coach Paula, LLC was able to keep my company going.
My condition turned out to be CIDP (Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy) where my body’s immune system attacks the nerves. All my strength was gone and I was only able to speak. I couldn’t even feed myself. I was drawing on my faith to manage my children and my company from the bed. I signed checks for my employees with my mouth, the only muscle that still worked.
Miraculously, things were starting to come back in my body but only to a certain degree. After three years of infusions, I have eye and hand damage, and I’m paralyzed from my knees to the feet. But the rest of my body is fine. My arms are fine and it took me a while to adjust to becoming the best person I could be with what I had available. Being a pro and a fighter, it was almost the same feeling as being in an academy. I spent hundreds of hours of therapy and learning how to walk again.
One night, when my 15-year-old daughter admonished me to stop crying and start living my life with what I had, I began to think that I may be able to teach tennis again one day. I started a small tennis academy and began teaching again, but now in a wheelchair.
In 2018 another miracle happened. Someone stopped me at the supermarket and told me about a special device someone in Seattle developed. It’s called ExoSym.
I put my legs in and I can walk again. No running but just walking. I also learned how to drive with hand controls and using telescopes on my eyes. I now teach tennis with those braces. To and from the courts I get around on my scooter which is mounted on the back of my car. Since my program is in six different schools right now, it’s important for me to study the route I’m driving for many hours so nothing unknown can happen to me.
My programs are always big groups between 10 and 40 at a time, so I have staff working for me. I manage them and I also teach. For years I have created my own methodology to teach and it works very well.
TCB: When did you become a Speaker and what made you decide to speak in front of Christian audiences?
PU: When I was really ill some Christian ladies wanted to visit but I chose to go to their Bible studies. I wanted to get out of the house. They started to invite me to tell my story and they loved it because I can tell really fun stories. Stories how grateful I am that my tennis-playing neighbor paid for the $22,000 ExoSym braces for me.
I got excited about becoming a speaker. Since I am a Catholic mom I love to share my stories with believers but also with athletes. Especially when they are tennis players. Like, how to win with what we have available to us.
It’s amazing how many students I have and the income that’s coming in despite my disability. Sometimes when I’m getting weak, I sit on my scooter, take a break. It’s all about adjusting your body and your situation to reality and then God opens the doors for you.
Right now I’m getting ready for summer. This summer, I have 14 summer camps for children on my calendar. From the last week of May until the last week of July. Some weeks I have two camps at the same time and I just have to learn to figure out how to manage them and choose the right people. My staff is wonderful. Even my 10-year-old daughter manages groups of kindergarteners all by herself. We are so flexible. When tennis courts are not available we go into the classroom or gym. We are known for that flexibility.
TCB: What is your tennis racquet of choice?
PU: I take whatever I find in the garage. I have many racquets.
TCB: What are your plans for the future?
PU: I’m publishing my first book, available soon in Spanish and in English. The title is “40 Gifts of Hope.” The book is to help and inspire the sick and suffering that are going through bad times. 40 short stories to help them overcome their suffering.
I also have plans to write a book for tennis players because that is my passion. My dream is to use all these horrible things that happened to me to inspire others and share with people that there’s something more important than winning or losing a match. That there are way more beautiful things in life. That we don’t take everything for granted. That we value everything we have. And that in the end, God is the one who takes control of our lives.
TCB: Thank you, Paula.
If you like Paula to be a speaker at your club or event, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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