Working as the U.S. Air Force Academy’s head tennis coach, Dan Oosterhous was living his dream job, but that nearly came to an end when he suffered two debilitating strokes in 2013, leaving him wheelchair-bound and fighting to regain the ability to perform tasks that were once an afterthought.
After his injury, it was never a choice of fight or flight for the now-retired lieutenant colonel. When faced with the challenge of rehabilitation, his inner athlete roared to life.
Oosterhous had been involved in the sport of tennis one way or another for the majority of his life.
“It was a family sport my dad put us all into when we were all little kids,” Oosterhous said. “Back in the 70’s it was a booming sport and (my dad) picked it up pretty quickly. He thought it was a lifetime sport that we could all do as a family, and it really was.”
Three of the four siblings, including Oosterhous, went on to play tennis in college. Oosterhous commissioned into the Air Force after playing on the Academy tennis team as a cadet. By the time he graduated in 1993, Oosterhous had been awarded the MVP award three times for his prowess on the court. According to Academy records, only seven players in the program’s history have ever received that award three or more times.
“It’s a unique sport in that it’s very individualized,” Oosterhous said. “You’re under the spotlight. In singles, specifically, you don’t have any person to rely on except yourself, and so it can be very humbling … You’re constantly put under pressure to perform. It has to come from within. You can’t do it without confidence in yourself.”
After he graduated from the Academy and became a pilot, Oosterhous kept hoping that someday he might get the chance to come back and teach. That hope was answered toward the end of his active-duty Air Force career, when Oosterhous received orders to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and the Academy, in 2009.
For several years, he was able to work as both a tennis coach and flight instructor, but in March 2013, Oosterhous’s life took an abrupt turn in a new direction.
He woke up with what he initially thought might be the flu – he was nauseous, dizzy and kept falling down. After googling his symptoms, however, Oosterhous realized his condition was potentially more serious as the word stroke appeared on the computer screen. Later that day, he was taken to the hospital where MRIs confirmed it was brain stem stroke that was causing muscle weakness on the right side of his body.
Strokes occur when the brain’s blood supply is interrupted, which can wreak havoc on the system within minutes as the deprived cells begin to shut down. According to the American Stroke Association, the traumas attributed to each “brain attack” depend upon what part of the organ is damaged and to what extent. Some possible effects of a stroke are blindness, paralysis, memory loss, speech and language deficits, and death.
After the stroke took its course, Oosterhous was informed that it was “actually pretty minor” — a statement he didn’t fully understand at the time — and he was able to leave the hospital after roughly four days.
“Things were going fine, and then three weeks later, I had a second stroke in the middle of the night again,” Oosterhous said. “This time it was my left side that was affected and it was almost complete paralysis from my shoulder on down.”
As the stroke took over and feeling faded from his left side, he understood that this second bout would be much worse than the first. With the first one, he’d still had some limited function on the affected side of his body. This time, he couldn’t move anything at all. For the next month, he remained in the hospital.
“Going from healthy, active and athletic one day to being unable to move out of my bed … it was essentially a really sudden departure from my normal life. It was just like a crash. It happened so suddenly.”
Oosterhous lost his ability to move around like he used to – walking with ease, running, playing tennis – those became foreign activities after the second stroke. The next month he began physical therapy to build back some of his muscle-function. While there, he was able to view other stroke survivors and their varying levels of success at rehabilitation. In the other patients, he noticed a connection between positivity and improvement, as well as that of negativity and failure.
“No matter what the obstacle is, as long as you put your mind to it and have a good attitude, you can overcome it,” he said.
“I knew from the very beginning, going to my very first couple rehab sessions, if I had a bad attitude or I didn’t want to do something – if it was ‘too painful’ or if it was ‘too hard’ – then there was no way I was ever going to get better. It was just a choice that I had. I could either chose to have a good attitude and work though it or I could sit in my bed, complain and say ‘why did this happen to me?’ I decided that the only way to get better was to have a good attitude.
Oosterhous set his ambition toward relearning how to walk, approaching his rehabilitation in the same manner he would tennis. He tapped into his spirit of competition.
In tennis, each player has good days and bad days, but, ultimately, he or she is trying to get a little bit better each day, trying to get ahead by working at one particular aspect of the game at a time.
“That’s something I learned well before the Academy, but it was reinforced here,” Oostehous said. “You start off with something very difficult, like starting here as a freshman, and you have all these obstacles and a really far off goal, which was graduation. But you try to take it day by day, and that’s something that is attainable. You just look a little bit ahead instead of looking at the very end. That was like my recovery. I didn’t worry about ‘What I am going to be like in five or ten years?’ I was just worried about ‘What am I going to do today to get a little bit better?’”
Oosterhous set some short-term goals for himself during his stay at the hospital and the following months.
“At first I was in a bed unable to walk, so the first goal was to be modified independent (to) get released back to my home, he said. “The next goal was to walk without a cane. So it was just little steps like that, going from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane.
“A big goal that I had a month after that was to be able to commission two graduates on my tennis team … That required me to get dressed in my uniform and then walk onto the stage, which I wanted to do (unassisted). Another goal was to coach my team again at our conference tournament; that was pretty soon after I got out of the hospital.”
These were all goals the tennis coach ultimately achieved.
Oosterhous’ team of cadets, who fondly call him ‘Coach O,” were motivated by watching him deal with his injuries. Andrew Parks, a senior cadet originally recruited by Oosterhous before the stroke, was able to observe his coach’s recovery efforts from the beginning.
“Coach O. always talked about how each month he had a goal for himself, whether it was being able to walk, to start using his right arm, or to move his left fingers, just little things like that,” Parks said. “He was kind of a role model for all of us to learn how to put things into perspective.”
Before his stroke, Oosterhous could use his skills on the court to competitively train his students in one-on-one tennis matches. He would triumph in nearly every game, even against his top players.
The left-side partial paralysis he inherited from his second stroke prompted a change in tactics. He had to evolve his coaching style to one mostly of observation and verbal direction, while his assistant coach took over much of the hands-on training. Even so, Oosterhous showed up to work with a smile, appreciative for the chance to train others in the sport he loved.
“I know, with our players, he’s had a huge impact on them,” said Evan Urbina, the tennis team’s assistant coach. “They come to practice ready to go because they understand that not every day is a given. This is a great opportunity. I think they have really taken that to heart and our guys are really motivated in practice — that’s something we care about.”
Through their head coach, the cadets witnessed a person who, regardless of the situation, retained the power to choose his own attitude. While at the Academy, each cadet faces their own form of adversity, from struggling with a test to missing a shot during a tennis match. Parks said that watching his coach deal with challenges changed his own view on daily struggles.
“Those are just little parts of life,” the cadet added. “You’ve got to look at the bigger picture.”
While Oosterhous wants to enable all of his athletes to be champion tennis players, he also strives to build the cadets into top-notch Air Force officers.
“We’re trying to give them the tools that will help them on the tennis court, and then obviously beyond that,” the coach said. “They’re only going to play tennis competitively in college for four years, but they’ll have hopefully a 20-plus-year career that they can take those experiences that we’ve taught them and use them, just like I did when I was here as a cadet.”
In the two years following his stroke, Oosterhous has been able to impact cadets on a wider scale than just the sports program. As a guest lecturer, he regularly attends a behavioral science class that discusses brain anatomy, where he tells students about strokes — what they are and what it is like to go through one.
The coach also teaches character and leadership lessons. Last year, he spoke to the entire senior class of 1,000 cadets about life lessons he has gained from his experiences.
“This is just the start of a long journey for them, and I want them to go into the Air Force with the right mindset,” Oosterhous said. “They are going to have tough days. When you are out flying a mission and the weather is bad, that’s no one’s fault, but you still have to perform and work well under stress with your teammates. Those are the lessons I want them to learn while they are here.”
When thinking back on his injury, though he’s not sure why, Oosterhous said he’s never felt regret. He never pondered why he had to go through what he did. He just focused on what he had to do to move forward. In his eyes, the last two years have been incredible and he’s happy with what he’s accomplished.
During his initial recovery in 2013, Oosterhous was approached by his teenage son with a random question: Which year of his life would he consider the best? Oosterhous recalled contemplating his answer, saying, “Well, certainly not this year, because I’ve had two strokes. I’ve been in the hospital, in a wheelchair, and all of that.”
To which his son replied, “Why not this year?” In his son’s eyes, 2013 was his father’s year of triumph, because of the journey he’d undertaken in the name of recovery and the strength of character it had taken to succeed.
It was a year that Oosterhous had dedicated himself to physical therapy – where he’d started off unable to walk and then built himself up as an adaptive athlete ready to attempt running again. It was a year that made his son proud.
It was also a year that made his team at the U.S. Air Force Academy proud.