STORY and PHOTOGRAPHY: Randy Milgrom

Beyond Tennis Glory

The men’s and women’s singles tennis matches are being held all day today in the new and spacious Baseline Tennis Center, an impressive smooth brick structure with a series of glass terraces cascading over the front entrance to the building.

The inside is spacious, with nearly too many smooth soft courts to count, and ample bleacher seating on either end of each court for spectators, of which there are many – and they are boisterous to boot. A large maroon and yellow “M” is painted on the bricks high above the courts at one end of the building, and a colorful “Gopher Tennis” sign is displayed at the other. On a morning when clouds are gathering and the weather is threatening, this pavilion offers a comfortable and inviting venue to both play and watch these tough, high-quality, fast-paced games of serve and volley.

Under the same roof and adjacent to the Baseline Tennis Center is the Ridder Arena, where the perennially ranked Minnesota Gophers play hockey in front of packed crowds against the likes of Wisconsin, Michigan, Lake Superior State, and other top college squads. As the Transplant Games tennis matches are being hotly contested on one side of the brick partition, a tough shooting and skating and checking practice was being conducted on the other.

Standing alone along the railing watching the hockey action is Justin Aronstein, 16, the lone member of the Virgin Islands (designated the “International”) Team. “Don’t see too much hockey in the Virgin Islands,” he says, grinning.

It was about 10:45 and Justin was waiting for his noon tennis match to begin after winning his 10:00 game by forfeit. “I think the guy broke his arm,” Justin said, but since Justin won the gold in the 17-and-under division in both 2000 and 2002 and is thus the odds-on favorite to repeat the feat this year, perhaps his would-be opponent broke his own appendage (or feigned injury) rather than having to face the juggernaut that is Justin Aronstein.

Sitting now and relaxing amid the sounds of slap shots and clashing pads, Justin, a powerfully built young man with wide, bulging calf muscles, recalls his earlier, more tentative days. Born with a missing portal vein to his liver – or at least one that was not large enough, or that was “insufficient,” in his words – he, along with his parents, were unaware of this congenital anomaly until he was about one-and-a-half years old and his stomach began bloating.

Justin’s mother, who has traveled with him to Minneapolis from the Virgin Islands, has now joined him on the benches above the ice. She recounts those days, when the doctors in the Virgin Islands were at a loss and she and Justin’s father had to travel to Boston and Miami and then to Pittsburgh where, finally, at about the age of two-and-a-half, Justin received a donor liver from a five year old girl. At that time, there wasn’t nearly as much encouragement about forging relationships between donor and recipient families, and the two had never been in touch until the little girl’s mother finally contacted Debbie last year. They have shared some correspondence since, but nothing much has yet come of it.

Debbie and Justin agree that Justin has been pretty much problem-free since his transplant. Justin has had an uninterrupted and successful school career, and he plays Varsity tennis on his high school tennis team at a private high school in St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

“He’s had brief rejection episodes,” says Debbie, the last one being about a year ago, “but for the most part he has been very healthy.”

Justin is an accomplished tennis player, and the competition at the Games, at his age level, has never been very difficult for him – though he says that every year he faces new competitors, and he has had a couple of difficult matches. He looks forward, though, to two years from now, when he graduates from the 17-and-under division. “Thank goodness he’ll be in another division next year,” his mom adds. But the Games have never really been about the competition for Justin. “It’s a time to celebrate,” Justin says, “and to get together with other people and share stories. It’s a good experience.”

Justin Aronstein is an intelligent and mature young man who says he has liked growing up and living in the Virgin Islands but he also “can’t wait to get out.” He hopes, in fact, to go to another extreme when he goes to college, having set his sights on a number of New York City schools, with New York University, and Greenwich Village, at the top of his list.

Justin’s got a matter-of-fact way about him that belies his relatively young age. “That’s life,” he shrugs, when asked about the hand he was dealt, though admittedly he is lucky enough that it hasn’t ever really affected his life to any great extent. “I take my medicine and that’s about it,” he says. But he’s also had to deal with losing his father to non-hodgkins lymphoma when he was only ten years old; his father was diagnosed with the disease around the time Justin was born, and he fought it for ten years, mostly without being too sick until the end, as Justin recalls.

But his answer to how he has had dealt with being without a father since such a tender age seems equally mature. He simply seems to know that others have had even more difficult things to have to deal with, and “that’s just the way life goes sometimes.”

Still, the Games seem to hold a special family significance for him this year. His aunt – Debbie’s sister – and her daughter live here in Minneapolis, and his grandmother has also traveled here from Three Rivers, Michigan. All are now at the Tennis Center to watch Justin thump his competition.

When last seen, all five members of the family were happily in search of the court on which Justin would continue his latest march toward gold.

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Last updated on: Friday, 05-Feb-2010 10:05:42 EST