Unfortunate as it may be, tragedy often drives young athletes to become the best they can be. This was the case with Arthur Ashe. The talented tennis player’s death post-AIDS diagnosis is as much a part of his legacy as anything he did on the court or as an activist. However, Ashe endured tragedy long before his AIDS diagnosis. When he was a kid, his mother died. However, the way he coped may be why you’ve heard of him today.
Arthur Ashe’s childhood
Born in Virginia in 1943, Ashe had an uphill battle from the moment he was born. Coming into a pre-Civil Rights America, his very birth was subject to the racism flooding the country. His family had to find a hospital that was willing to take in black patients. Luckily, they encountered one.
Growing up in segregated areas, Ashe was used to staying with people who looked like him. From his early days on playgrounds to his later ones as an up-and-coming tennis star, Ashe experienced the ugly side of America. Ashe was a sickly kid at birth, with measles, chickenpox, mumps, coughs, Diphtheria, and other illnesses plaguing him since birth. In some ways, this helped toughen him up.
However, when he was around six or seven, he discovered a love for tennis at a local court. For several hours a day, Ashe went outside and practiced on the court, off the court, and wherever he could get a ball and racket. However, as he was entering into his own, a disaster happened that’d shape him for the rest of his life.
Ashe says goodbye to his mother
Ashe was just six years old when his mother died of complications from surgery, details UCLA. Still only a child, Ashe was so distraught that he refused to attend her burial and began to focus on tennis to grieve. That same year, however, he had the privilege of meeting Ronald Charity, a rare black tennis star at a time when tennis was still heavily segregated. Charity began to work with a grieving Ashe on his swing.
For a child barely old enough to read, grieving can be confusing. With a new passion around that same time, however, Ashe used tennis to cope. Not long after, Charity helped introduce Ashe to Dr. Walter Johnson, who not only coached the young prodigy in tennis but life.
For the rest of his life, Ashe credited Dr. Johnson for making him the man he was at the height of his career. Despite experiencing such a tragic death as a child, Ashe grew up to be one of the most iconic sports figures.
Ashe comes out the other side
Ashe was, in some ways, born at the perfect time. Coming into his tennis career when the Civil Rights movement was taking form, Ashe became bigger than an average athlete. He became a black voice in one of the most historically white sports on earth. Experiencing tragedy from an early age helped him realize that there was always something bigger than sports.
Ashe was a three-time Grand Slam winner and one of the first black superstars in tennis, as the New York Times details. However, his story goes much deeper. From his mother’s loss to his own tragic death from AIDS, Ashe always faced adversity like the champion he was. His mother may not have seen his legacy grow, but she still helped shape him into being one of the most heroic athletes that the world has ever seen.