It was last summer that Cade Pressnell suddenly found himself gasping for breath.
Until then, tennis was his whole life. As an eighth-grader, he held the No. 1 singles spot at Hartselle High and was in training for the coming high school season, where the 14-year-old planned to play at Austin his freshman year.
But during bi-weekly clinics and routine matches with his dad, Pressnell’s progress began to slip. He couldn’t blow opponents away like he once had, and was quickly fatigued in conditioning drills.
“It felt bad because I had been putting in a lot of work and training that whole summer,” Pressnell said. “… I was getting beat by people who I had beaten.
“I had not always been the fastest, but I had always been the guy who had the most stamina.”
Three years earlier, after a routine exam at Crestline Elementary School in Hartselle, Pressnell was diagnosed with scoliosis. Since then, his family had tried solutions ranging from chiropractic treatment to mesh bracing. They helped, but as time passed non-surgical treatments were not enough: His shifting, S-shaped spine was pushing Pressnell’s ribs into his lungs.
Cade was born and bred in tennis. Great-uncle LaRon Pressnell was an All-American at Austin in 1979. Cade’s father, Chris Pressnell, played on the Black Bears state championship tennis team in 1989. Though Cade would often lose to his dad by 10 or 12 points, as his spine grew worse, he was losing by 17 or 18.
People who had watched Cade before said it was like seeing a different person.
“He went from being able to play outside eight hours a day, he couldn’t stay out more than 45 minutes,” Chris Pressnell said. “He was just gasping. He had no energy.”
Cade likes tennis more than team sports because of the individual responsibility.
“It’s just you. You don’t have to rely on any teammates. If I lose, it’s my fault, it’s not their fault, not anybody else’s fault,” he said. “It’s all me.”
The traditional corrective surgery calls for an incision from the top to bottom of the back, cutting through muscles and nerves in order to fuse a metal rod to the spine. When the Pressnells learned the surgery could require up to a year of recovery, they started looking for options.
They found a possible treatment that was a minimally invasive, a longer and more tedious process that preserves the muscles and soft tissues and requires a shorter recovery — four to six weeks. It corrects the spine by sliding a metal rod alongside the spine, moving the muscles aside without any damage.
They located who they believed to be the only U.S. doctor who would perform the surgery on a 14-year-old, Dr. Vishal Sarwahi at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, and scheduled surgery for the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Traveling by car, Cade remained confident on the 1,000-mile drive that this surgery was the right choice.
“I was just nervous a little bit about sports and nervous about the surgery itself,” he said. “I was worried if something went wrong, if I would get to play again.”
After an eight-hour surgery, his spine was straightened to a seven-degree curvature. When he hugged his mom afterward, the first thing he noticed was his height: he was 2 inches taller, standing at 5-foot-4, and could see eye-to-eye with his mother.
Five weeks later, he was back on the court, just in time to start the season. Now Austin’s No. 1 player, Cade holds a winning record in singles (6-1) and doubles (4-3). He stands out with consistency and his ability to keep the ball in play.
“I wasn’t expecting him to be as powerful as he was,” said Austin Willingham, a Black Bears senior who lost to Cade twice last season.
Now Cade’s doubles partner, Willingham said he never hears him complain about pain.
He also has picked up the old debate on who is the best Pressnell tennis player, between Cade, his dad and great-uncle.
“They’re always giving me garbage about who’s the best and stuff,” Pressnell said. As the rest of the team filtered off during practice last week, Pressnell walked back on the court with his dad, swinging the racket with seamless mobility.
The pain, he said, is gone.
Meredith Qualls can be reached at 256-340-2395 or email@example.com.
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