Former Steamboat tennis pro Andy Caress dies of cancer
August 4, 2010
Steamboat Springs — Jim Swiggart choked back tears as he weaved through traffic on a Chicago interstate and dug deep into his memory, trying to come up with names of those who knew Andy Caress best.
It wasn't hard because examples were scant.
"Off the top of my head, I could tell you 50 people that loved him," Swiggart said.
Rather, it was hard because it was Andy.
Caress, who once worked for Swiggart as a pro at the Tennis Center at Steamboat Springs, died Wednesday morning, taken by the melanoma that was diagnosed nearly two years ago. He died in his hometown of Cincinnati, eight days short of his 25th birthday.
Swiggart spent Wednesday traveling to Kalamazoo, Mich., with his son, Jamey, to play in the massive and prestigious USTA boys national championships.
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Their thoughts, however, were far from the approaching competition.
"Andy is the only other person Jamey has ever worked with in a private lesson," said Swiggart, who otherwise used his 43 years of coaching experience to fine-tune his son's skills. "My whole family loved him. We're just trying to get our heads around it so Jamey can take Andy's tenacity into this tournament he has to play."
Wednesday, many in Steamboat were trying to get their heads around the life and death of a 24-year-old who had friends everywhere he went.
Blowing into town
Caress moved to Steamboat Springs in 2007 and left his marks across town. He skied the mountain and tubed the river, ran on marathon weekend and finished the triathlon.
Fresh out of a collegiate tennis career playing for Coastal Carolina University, he left his most indelible marks at the tennis bubble.
Swiggart said Caress contacted him out of the blue before moving to town, looking for a job.
"He'd been here skiing and wanted to teach tennis, and he asked if he could send his résumé," Swiggart remembered. "I said, 'Sure,' not intending to hire anyone."
A glowing résumé and mutual friends of the two who claimed that Caress was like a son to them changed Swiggart's mind, however. Once in town, Caress taught lessons to all ages and skill levels.
"He was great, always supportive and always fun," said Steamboat Springs High School tennis player Keegan Burger, who worked with Caress for about a year.
"Everybody loved him, young kids and older players," added Susie Allen, who worked the front desk at the Tennis Center while Caress taught. She formed a close friendship with him during that time. "He had a big following. He had a great sense of humor and a winning smile and endeared himself to everyone he knew."
Caress lived the Steamboat life, squeezing into condos with too many roommates and working nights to pay the rent.
He helped start and teach a tennis class at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus and helped found a mud season dodgeball league that played at the Tennis Center.
"Andy was a full-of-ideas kind of guy, and Steamboat was a place where that could flourish," close friend Marie Matrka said. "He touched so many people's lives, and he was such a good guy."
Caress was chiseled and fast when he completed the 2008 Steamboat Triathlon, the picture of health. Two months later, at the insistence of friends, he called a dermatologist about a tiny bump on the back of his neck.
That was the beginning of a roller-coaster of medical treatments, miracle cures and devastating setbacks that left those who loved him inspired and, on Wednesday, crushed.
"It's tough," Matrka said. "Maybe it was better for there to be the ups and downs because that's what helped push him through — that's what kept him Andy along the way."
The confirmation that the initial bump on his neck — which he playfully named "Gus" — was cancer led to surgery less than two weeks later. He endured seemingly endless tests and treatments in the next 22 months.
Cancer was found in his lymph node system and his femur, his right calf and his lungs. It returned to his neck and eventually showed up in his brain.
"I always knew Andy was a strong individual, but through his fight with melanoma, I learned just how strong he was," friend Anthony Miriani said.
Through it all, Caress maintained an attitude that his friends found inspiring.
"He approached life with an open heart and lived it to the fullest. He approached this disease the same way," Allen said. "He taught us all. He taught me how to live."
Steamboat showed its support with several fundraising efforts.
The first, a charity dodgeball tournament in 2008, helped with medical costs.
Another took place this summer, a running and swimming duathlon that benefited the Mela-KNOW-More foundation, which Caress started to raise awareness about the cancer.
That helped him turn in a $10,000 donation to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he received many of his treatments.
"It was a gift for us to be able to help him out," said Darby Burger, who lost her father to melanoma and helped spearhead the duathlon event in Steamboat. "One of his dreams was to keep on spreading the awareness for skin cancer, so certainly we'll do that."
Ups and down
The journey was littered with high moments, none higher than doctors' assessments early this year that indicated a new drug had a radically positive effect on tumors throughout his body.
"Santa was very good to me this Christmas," he wrote in January in a blog he kept during his treatments.
He updated again about a month later, after his next doctor's appointment, reporting that all the lesions and tumors in his body had shrunk to near nonexistence:
"Without a doubt, today is one of the best days of my life. … For so long I have been handed blow after blow. Or, I would get good news mixed with bad news. Well, now I have received good news two times in a row and it feels incredible. … I am celebrating today's news cautiously, but celebrating none the less."
Things took a disheartening turn in May.
"The cancer has returned and it is the worst it has ever been," he wrote. "I can't pretend that this news was not shocking or devastating, after doing so well for 4 months on the drug trial. But as always, I, with the awesome support from my family and friends, am determined to fight this."
One final turn for the worst landed Caress in the hospital late last week.
His family reported that Caress died in peace Wednesday morning.
"He was so many things," Matrka said. "He was funny and good-hearted and caring. That's what people commonly say when someone passes away, but I always felt I was pretty lucky to get to spend so much time with him."