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Pat Summitt, facing Alzheimer's diagnosis, has ally in Nancy Reagan

November 2, 2011 |  7:52 am

Pat Summitt, celebrating her 1,000th win in 2009, talks about a letter of support she received from Nancy Reagan
Pat Summitt, in her recent struggles with a diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer's type, has found an ally in former first lady Nancy Reagan.

Summitt, who has coached the University of Tennessee women's basketball team for 37 years, revealed the diagnosis in late August. Admirers and rivals too responded to the news with shock, as the Los Angeles Times reported, sending words of encouragement and statements of support.

"I've known Coach Summitt for 23 years," said Louisiana State Coach Nikki Caldwell, who played for Summitt and also coached at UCLA, "and there has never been a fight that she's backed down from."

In an interview airing Friday on ABC's "20/20," Summitt talks about the diagnosis and reveals that it spurred a letter from Reagan: "She said, you know, I heard about your diagnosis of dementia, and I just wanted to reach out to you and just tell you, you know, that it’s going to be OK."

President Reagan, who left office in 1989, revealed his Alzheimer's diagnosis in 1994 and died 10 years later at age 93.

Summitt said she was touched by the former first lady's good wishes and said receiving the letter gave her "the chills."

There will be rocky times ahead for Summitt.  As The Times reports:

Early-onset Alzheimer's can be a difficult diagnosis to face. It sets in well before the age of 65, the Mayo Clinic explains, the typical lower limit for standard Alzheimer's disease, and thus affects people when they're still in their prime, often with elderly parents or young children to care for as well.

Then there are those with a whole sports organization depending on them. Summitt is the winningest coach in college basketball.

Times reporter Baxter Holmes reported in September that despite the Alzheimer's diagnosis, Summitt wanted to coach the Lady Vols "as long as the good Lord is willing."


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-- Amy Hubbard

Photo: Pat Summitt, coach of the Tennessee Volunteers women's basketball team, blows kisses to the crowd after her team defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in February 2009, giving her her 1000th win as a coach. Credit: Mark Zerof / US Presswire