Fifteen-year-old Jacque Rodriguez is one of the newest members on the Del Mar High School junior varsity tennis team. She spends her time on the court knocking down obstacles, just as she’s done all her life.
Rodriguez was born with a condition so rare, doctors told her parents she may not live beyond her first year of life. She spent the first seven years of her life in the hospital.
Rodriguez has been diagnosed with lymphatic malformations. Abnormal cells have been collecting in her face since birth, and compressing her nasal cavity. She can’t breathe through her nose and mouth. Instead, she uses a wind pipe which prevents her from talking.
So when she decided last year to join the tennis team, her mom was concerned.
“I was worried about her being accepted, her being physically able to be competitive and to run around,” said Evelyn Belen, Jacque’s mom. “But she wanted to do it, she wanted to be active she wanted to be an athlete. And — I couldn’t keep her from it.”
Neither could her special education teacher, who is also her tennis coach. He too was concerned about Jacque’s acceptance by other players and teams.
“She has a very visible disability and I was very concerned about how the other kids at school were going to look at her and how she would be accepted,” said Tom Heckley, her coach.
Jacque had played tennis before with the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative, and was determined to keep playing at her San Jose school. She practiced over the summer and during the off season to prepare for games, and admits some of the workout were challenging.
“It was hard for me because I didn’t have a strong wrist,” Jacque communicated through her iPad. To help her breathe easier on the court, her coach learned how to operate a breathing machine so she could participate.
Soon Jacque and her team focused less on her differences, and more on her commitment to the team, positive attitude and big smile.
“Her face just seems just happy all the time and it’s like supportive in a way. It feels supportive and comforting,” said teammate Samantha Garcia.
Rodriguez was a substitute during a number of this season’s games, and continues to work on her skills. While she learns, she is also teaching others the importance of normalizing differences.
“Probably one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that differences overtime disappear,” said Coach Heckley. His players agree.
“Just because they look unique doesn’t mean they’re different,” said teammate Kebron Afework.
Jacque’s mom has learned just how strong her daughter is, despite her special needs.
“I always thought she was a delicate flower and yet she is a real sporty, lively, energetic gal that just is blossoming,” said Belen.
Jacque plans to keep playing tennis in high school, and eventually become a nurse to help other patients like herself. To her, achieving her goals is as simple as anything else.
“I feel like I’m a normal teenager doing things that I like to do,” she said.