As Monica Aguado tossed her first serve during Monday’s Winthrop-Coastal Carolina women’s tennis match, she realized her hands were shaking.
Aguado was feeling the anxiety of Winthrop’s Senior Day. The tiny little Spaniard had endured so much during her four-plus years in Rock Hill. Extra emotional weight piled on top of the typical Senior Day nerves already saddled on her slight shoulders.
About two hours earlier, Aguado was trying to compose herself. But the tears flowed when she and fellow seniors Tijana Uzelac and Alice Garcia were recognized in front of a small crowd at the Winthrop Tennis Center. Their teammates presented them handmade posters with pictures from the past couple years, and gift bags. Aguado’s contained a stuffed, red race car, similar to the Mitsubishi Eclipse she zipped around Rock Hill in after getting her driver’s license.
“I was thinking about that Senior Day for a long, long time,” she said. “The first thing I wanted was to not be nervous because that was going to close an important stage in my life. But I was so nervous, so nervous, and that affected me a lot.”
“I was just gonna go over it”
Aguado realizes now that paying $1,400 for a wig is too much. But she didn’t have many other options in Spain, a country with little or no cultural connection to wearing wigs.
A quick step back: In 2010, Aguado was one of the top female youth players in Spain, dipping her toes into the waters of professional tennis, while considering scholarship offers from a number of American college tennis coaches.
At the end of that year, Aguado began to notice something was wrong with her body. She suffered fevers at night, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, a series of seemingly unconnected symptoms. Doctors connected the dots: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Aguado’s tennis mentality kicked in. Used to competing against herself mentally on the court, Aguado was again fighting an opponent, this time her body.
“I didn’t want that to affect my life,” she said. “For me, it was something that happened and I was just gonna go over it and then come back to my life. It was not like a big thing.”
Most of the recruiting interest from the American schools waned. But where Hodgkin’s Lymphoma scared off many of the recruiters, it intrigued Winthrop coach Cid Carvalho.
“She’s very strong-minded,” he said. “She wanted to come, that was her goal, and she wasn’t gonna allow anything to prevent her from achieving her goal. That even created more interest in me because you could see it’s a special type of person.”
Aguado began chemotherapy and her hair started to fall out. She shaved the rest of it off at a sympathetic salon that covered the mirrors. There had been enough shock already.
She had a wig - based on her hair color and length - specially made out of real hair, hence the price.
Aguado endured chemo from May to September, 2011, but her body handled the side effects well and she continued playing tennis once a week. She worked herslef back into shape and signed with Winthrop in November of that year, enrolling at the school in January of 2012. It was almost as if it didn’t happen.
Playing tennis in a wig is uncomfortable.
Aguado’s hair didn’t fully grow back until May of 2012 so she played with the wig for most of first season at Winthrop. It clung to her scalp and microwaved her head into a sweaty mess. She wore a baseball cap most of the time when she was playing.
“I didn’t even notice it was a wig until somebody told me,” Carvalho said.
$1,400 well spent, then.
On the court, Aguado’s freshman season was a success. She was named the Big South’s best No. 6 player and the Eagles won the conference championship, going to the NCAA tournament.
The fall was also good, but when Aguado went home for Christmas her life was rattled a second time; the lymphoma had returned.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’m just gonna pick up my results from the doctor,’ and when he told me that, I was in, like, shock,” Aguado said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Her long, dark hair bailed on her again. She bought a second wig that was synthetic, not as expensive, and much more comfortable. With so little control over the disease, exerting control over artificial hair color and length became that much more important.
She stayed in Spain for the spring semester of 2013, needing the support of her family and friends, but also the country’s free healthcare.
The second round of chemotherapy was brutal, as if chemo wasn’t going to let its second shot at Aguado go to waste. The drugs were more toxic, hell-bent on killing the disease or Aguado, or both. Two and three days after treatment she would still be unable to eat, racked by vomiting and nausea. Simply walking down the hall felt impossible.
“It was so much stronger,” Aguado said. “So chemical. I would feel terrible.”
The chemo drugs coursed through her for the first five months of 2013. The worst was yet to come.
A clean slate
Lymph fluid is made of white blood cells - the cellular heroes that help the body fight and recover from infections. Aguado’s were compromised by the disease and subsequent chemo. She needed a bone marrow transplant to restart her immune system.
Some of her stem cells were harvested before the procedure. After seven intense consecutive days of chemo, Aguado’s harvested stem cells were reintroduced to her body to reignite cell production and begin the recovery process in earnest. A clean cellular slate.
The procedure took 30 minutes; the recovery required five weeks of isolation at a Madrid hospital. Aguado’s immune system was completely wiped out and it was too risky for her to have visitors. She stayed in bed for three weeks without seeing anyone except nurses and doctors, before her parents - dressed in scrubs from head to toe to avoid potentially infecting their daughter - were finally able to visit.
Aguado checked social media on her phone and watched TV. She was fed through a tube. She weighed less than 100 pounds, but no one in Rock Hill knew the severity of her situation.
All the while, returning to Winthrop was Aguado’s driving motivation.
“I had friends here, I had my team, I wanted to win a championship again. I knew what the feeling was so that was, like, extra motivation for me to recover the second time.”
Doctors made a simple deal with Aguado: as soon as she could eat actual food on her own, she could leave the hospital. Not so simple. Mucositis is a common side effect of chemo, when the mucous lining of the throat and mouth is left raw and burning by the widespread cell death.
Mucositis makes eating intolerable. Aguado remembers staring at a plate of spaghetti trying to will herself to eat.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said.
A couple of days later, Aguado forced down the pasta. She finally went home.
After a month – and against her doctors’ recommendations – Aguado was back in Rock Hill. She began to work out again that fall, brief sessions with 1 and 2-pound dumbbells turning into three hours splayed out on her bed, nearly lifeless.
Aguado was back to fully practicing with the team by October of 2013. She completed her first wig-free season in 2014, again winning the Big South’s No. 6 slot, then finishing tops among No. 5’s in 2015.
Even two years removed from cancer, Aguado frets over every little twinge and twang in her body, nervous about what it might mean. Trips home to Spain to see her family and friends are tainted by the anxiety of semi-annual checkups.
“Every year she writes me and she’s like, ‘I’m free,’” said Carvalho, whispering the last part. “It’s always a relief.”
This wasn’t a story Aguado was prepared to tell until recently.
“Now I’m much more confident with myself,” Aguado said on Wednesday. “I also think I can help out a lot of people from telling my story, inspiration for somebody that’s fighting this right now. So for me, this is a shock right now that I’m gonna tell this to somebody like you, that’s gonna publish this.”
She’s grown in every way possible - well, except height.
Aguado came to America knowing very little English and she remembered leaving her first class at Winthrop overwhelmed and in tears. With less than a month remaining in her college academic career, Aguado has a 3.48 GPA and made it clear on Wednesday that she expects to muster up the missing .02 to graduate with a 3.5 and honors.
She already has a post-graduation job lined up in Charlotte with ISL Futbol, a company that represents the soccer club F.C. Barcelona in the United States.
Senior Day didn’t end the way Aguado wanted it to. The nerves never subsided and she lost 6-2, 6-1, ending a seven-match winning streak. Aguado is used to pressure before competing, but Monday’s nerves were different.
“I was not comfortable,” she said. “I couldn’t focus.”
The loss didn’t dampen Aguado’s achievement. Merely reaching Senior Day was incredible in itself. Carvalho – who took a chance on Aguado when she was first sick – called it a victory.
“That’s one thing when I recruit, I look for these special people that are very strong-minded, very good competitors,” he said. “That’s really the main ingredient. If you find somebody with that attitude I think you have a winner on your hands. She’s an example of that.”