|Photos by: Matt Oleszczak|
Rallying Through Life’s Kill Shots – Sharon Huczek, 67, Rochester, Michigan
If you are looking for a model of perseverance and persistence, you need not look farther than Sharon Huczek. The same would be true if you are looking for a model of an inspirational person who makes a difference in other people’s lives.
As you will find from our conversation below, Sharon’s personal journey and accomplishments alone would be inspirational enough to showcase her as a Personal Best athlete. Rising from a poor and difficult family setting in a blue collar suburb of Detroit, she fought the perception that girls weren’t capable enough for athletics. She also clung onto a dream to become a teacher one day, despite being told girls didn’t need to go to college and should just get married.
As an athlete, Sharon has carved out a long, successful career as a fiercely competitive racquetball player and a leader in her sport community. She is grateful that she somehow overcame multiple surgeries that sidelined her over the past three years, and was able to triumphantly return to the court and compete in the 2015 National Senior Games presented by Humana.
Regarding the teaching dream, Sharon worked virtually every possible hour she could as a teen to pay her own way to college. She eventually earned three degrees and pursued a 40-year professional educational career teaching at every public school level. This included many years of taking on the toughest jobs with youth struggling with learning disabilities or who were emotionally impaired from experiences no one should ever have to go through. She finally realized her ultimate goal to serve as a counselor and career tech advisor before reluctantly retiring.
It is her amazing strength, courage, empathy and patience helping others that also makes Sharon’s story stand out as an inspiration for anyone seeking to improve themselves, get out of a bad situation, or to attain a goal. She has guided many to pursue their own dreams, including nurturing her own son’s athletic ambitions and success.
Sharon Huczek (the name rhymes with “music”) continues to counsel and guide others, running classes at her YMCA and sharing her own 8 step program teaching tough lessons built on a spiritual foundation. The following exchange with her is well worth the read as we appreciate yet another way senior athletes demonstrate their Personal Best journey.
Your competition says you are a racquetball machine, Sharon. How long have you been playing?
I started playing in 1974 while teaching junior high math. I’ve been competing for 41 years and have been in well over 300 tournaments. I can’t count them all or tell you how many medals I have, there were so many in my earlier years. I’ve been on the RAM (Racquetball Association of Michigan) board for 27 years and was inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2011, both for my ability and leadership in the organization. Racquetball was a real craze in the 70s through the 80s, and I was on the metro league travel team and we played all over, even up into Canada. There’s fewer people involved in the sport now, I guess it’s because it’s so hard on the body.
You had a pretty healthy run up until two years ago when it seemed to be one thing after another. Tell us how your worked through that.
I won a silver medal in singles and a bronze in doubles in the National Senior Games in 2011, and I qualified for 2013. But I had surgery on my shoulder in July of 2012, and then my knee got weak. The doctor said it was bone on bone and I needed a knee replacement. I resisted and just wanted arthroscopic surgery, which I got in February of 2013. But it didn’t work. He was right. Even with the problems, I had signed up to go to The Games in Cleveland thinking I would be back on the court.
So I had the knee replacement, and for the Michigan Senior Olympics that year I couldn’t play racquetball, but I did the power walk. I was very slow and limping. They wanted to take me off the track, but I was determined since I had played in all of them since I started several years ago.
Then, on Thanksgiving Day, the snow had come down in buckets and I was out walking and slipped on a spot that was frozen underneath. I came up into the air and landed hard on my wrist. At the hospital they said it was the worst break like that they’d ever seen. I had two surgeries, including a bone graft and putting in a plate with ten screws to bridge the gap. The doctor told me that he didn’t think it would heal at my age and that I probably wouldn’t be able to flex my wrist again. My therapist told me this was going to be a long, slow journey. I was pretty depressed about it, but I didn’t give up. I worked night and day to get my movement going. Three months later the x rays showed everything had grown back. After they got the plate out in October of 2014, I got 80 to 90 percent of my flexion back. And here I am, back on the court. I just couldn’t stay away.
It’s a real blessing to be able to be back. God has blessed me with the ability to persevere, always striving to do my best.
You certainly have a passion for your sport, and it’s brought others into it, including your own son.
We had our son Jack in 1983, and I took him everywhere I played. He started hitting a racquetball when he was only two years old, and he told me at three he was going to become the best player in the world. And I said, “Yes, you will, son.” He was blessed with the physical coordination, the work ethic, all the elements for success-and he went on to be the greatest junior in racquetball history! Jack went on to win consecutive world titles from the age of eight until 18. His extensive professional career included three world championships and Pan American gold medal winner in 2003. He was the total package.
You’ve stayed active most of your adult life. Did you come from an athletic family?
My dad was an athlete, quite a ballplayer on baseball teams around Detroit. He was very strong and really could run. There are some genes on my mother’s side, I think she could have been an athlete, she had the right body for it. But she suffered from a mental illness and ended up in a nursing home from 1959 on.
I had one brother and two sisters. My aunt had four boys. My brother was the closest in age and I was a tomboy. I could do everything the guys could do, playing ball in the street, riding bikes and playing table tennis. We used to bike all over the place. My family was poor, my dad was a factory worker and my mom’s care took a lot of money. So we did the things that didn’t cost a lot to do.
But back then there weren’t as many things girls like my mom could do. Even in my day girls basketball was half court. They still treated women like they weren’t capable. I did whatever the school let me do, playing basketball and some softball, and I liked to run too. I’ve run three marathons in my life.
You made it to college-did you do any sports there?
No. I’ll tell you how I got to college. I dreamed of being a teacher since the second grade. But my dad didn’t believe that girls need to go to college, they just get married. I told him “You’re not going to stop me.” I made my own way and started working and saving every nickel I made. I worked seven nights and five days, sometimes 105 hours a week, in factories, waiting tables, whatever was being offered. One of my bosses paid me under the table because I went beyond the restrictions for a minor. But he was a wonderful man and helped me to obtain my goal.
So I went to Michigan State and worked my way through. I bought an old beat up Corvair and I would get paid to take people home to Detroit on the weekends, and then wait tables all weekend and go back to East Lansing. That car burned more oil than gas in the end. (Laughs) Then at school I did work for the professors, did housecleaning, babysitting, painting houses, I was never too proud to take a job.
But you attained your goal to teach.
I graduated with a math major and biology minor in 1970 and rented a house with some friends in Warren where I started teaching at Washington Elementary for the Van Dyke public schools. I kept my waitress job at first because I bought myself a brand new bright red Pontiac Firebird! I loved teaching and doing activities like PTA and camp programs. Whenever they needed somebody they called me. Four years later I moved up to junior high and later to high school.
My ultimate goal was to become a counselor. I realized I could do more than I could as a teacher. You can build relationships and be an advocate and help get them into programs. So I got my masters degree at Wayne State University while teaching. I also started coaching all the junior and high school girls basketball teams…all at the same time.
So everything really started coming together for you.
Actually, there were budget cuts and I got a pink slip after I finished my masters. So I went to Oakland University and got another masters in special education, focused on learning disabilities and emotional impairment. I worked in special ed for 12 years in a lower economic area of borderline Detroit. 90 percent of the families were on welfare. It was brutal. We had gang problems and a full-time cop at the school. And when you gather all of the emotionally impaired kids in one class it was a zoo.
I got back into teaching high school math to get some fresh air. That’s where I met my husband John and we got married in 1980. He was the wrestling coach there. He competed in archery at the National Senior Games this ye And I did eventually get into a counseling position for the last ten years of my career. Part of that was working with career tech education program helping get kids scholarships. I believed in that because in our district there was a very diverse population and a lot of students were not cut out of a four year university. But they could be trained for a trade skill and support their families.
You’ve done some tough work. You certainly have persevered in every way, personally and professionally. I loved my work. I never turned a kid away. Many had very serious issues, some would cut themselves to make it hurt outside because it hurt so bad inside with what they had been through. Some were so overweight. They would want to talk with me and sometimes I would tell them “Get your tennis shoes on” and take them out on the track on my lunch hour. I’d take one or two at a time to walk and let them get everything out. I frequently had to call protective service beca use of information they would share about abuse. I’ve had to place abused mothers and children in shelters too.
There were guns and drugs in the school. I’ve had students come up and say they were going to kill me if they didn’t get a grade. You know what I’d say to them? I’d get right in their face and say “Thanks for letting me know so I can fill out a police report so they will know who to come get. You’re getting the exact grade you deserve. I’m willing to help you pass this class, I’ll get up early and let you take another test, but I’m NOT going to be threatened.” You can’t be a coward in that situation.
Hard to believe what heroes we have in our most challenging schools. No wonder you’re not afraid of fielding kill shots on the racquetball court!
Well, there were times I thought I’d end up dead. But those kids know when you mean business or not, and I guess I just had that resilient character and believed I’m going to do this because it’s the right thing to do and I’m going to stand up f or truth and honesty.
And I’ll tell you. After I retired I went through an emotional crisis for the first year. I cried because I missed those kids. And you wouldn’t believe how many people I run into that thank me, and I live almost 40 miles away from Warren where I taught. Some call me by my maiden name from before I got married. They tell me things like “You gave me hope,” “You inspired me,” or “I became successful because of you.” That was my mission. They don’t have to be a product of their parents or the place they live.
You certainly have a gift to be an inspiration to others – in sports and in life.
You know, you lead by example. You have to do it, walk the talk. I’m not afraid to tell people If you want to reach that goal, you just have to go through the process and do the hard work.
I now teach cycling and mat pilates classes at the YMCA, and people still come up to me, young and old. I can relate to them all. They say “I just need whatever you have, tell me what makes it happen.” (Laughs) The first thing I ask them is, “Are you willing to pay a price to reach your goal?”
I’d like to mention that I created my own 8 step program. I call it “The Journey to Healing Through Faith and Hope.” I’m very spiritual. You have to know there is a superior Being that is in control. Each step emphasizes a word starting with P, and the first one is to “Pray for His Direction and Guidance.” The second step is to “Make a Plan.” Next is “Passionate Work Ethic.” Fourth is “Perfect Practice.” Fifth is “Positive Christian Relationships.” You know, if it wasn’t for those friends at the Y, I might not have gone back to racquetball after those injuries. One lady told me, “The longer you stay away, the harder it is to come back.” Just that one statement pulled me back up.
That leads to the sixth step: “Push Past Pain.” Seventh is interesting because you are talking to me about Personal Best. This step I call “Perform at your Personal Best.” You know what that means. And the final step is “Pursue Your Dream.”
That’s a lot of “P’s”
(Laughs) But it helps people remember. There is a price to be paid for increased strength, movement and energy. There are no excuses. It’s a total commitment of body, mind and soul.