Riding in a 15-passenger van in Florida, after a loss players felt should have been a win, the Whitworth women’s tennis team stewed in silence.
They had lost 6-3 to St. Olaf, a team from Minnesota they expected to beat, by way of four tiebreakers.
Then, from the back row, Marissa Kirk broke the silence in what coach Rachel Aldridge called the worst southern accent in the entire universe.
“She started assigning southern personas to everyone,” said Aldridge, who was driving. “The rest of the trip everyone was talking in a terrible southern accent.
“She has a way of diffusing intense moments without making it about her, and I don’t think she even realizes she does that. … She doesn’t ruminate on the negative.”
Kirk, whose Whitworth tennis career ended when the Pirates lost to the Whitman Blues on Saturday in Walla Walla, is not one to make the story about herself, either, Aldridge said.
So when Aldridge shared before Friday’s match – this year’s seniors last at home – that Kirk plays through pain every set, it was something only a couple teammates knew about.
“Today, there’s a slight little numbness, like something is squeezing an area that’s tender,” Kirk said after winning a singles match in straight sets and a doubles match 8-1, in the team’s 9-0 victory against Pacific Lutheran. “It’ll probably go away after I rest a bit. I don’t notice it, because if I do it makes it worse.”
The source of Kirk’s pain is hip dysplasia – essentially, the sockets don’t fully cover the balls in her hip joints – something she was first diagnosed with when she was 12. At the time her focus was gymnastics.
“It was really hard on my hips and I didn’t know why it was hurting so much,” Kirk said. “I would come home from practice and couldn’t walk up the stairs and I thought, something’s not right.”
She switched focus to tennis, and chiropractors helped her manage the pain for a few years, but surgery became inevitable. Before her senior year at Lake Washington High School – where she had only just transferred for her junior year – Kirk had surgery to correct the dysplasia in her left hip.
During the surgery, doctors broke her bone in three spots and then used titanium screws to keep it together, she said, and they weren’t optimistic she’d be able to play tennis competitive again.
“It was a really difficult time for her physically,” said her mom Elle Kirk.
After missing the first month of school, Marissa used a wheelchair the next two months before switching to crutches. Determined to play tennis that spring, she was able to despite the pain.
She won her final match that year but had to be carried off the court, she was in so much pain, Elle said.
Yet that wasn’t going to deter Marissa from continuing her tennis career. She attended Bellevue College, redshirting the first year and then playing the next two. That’s when Aldridge first saw her, when Whitworth scrimmaged against BC. Kirk said Aldridge told her to keep in contact.
In the summer of 2017, the Kirks showed up at the Whitworth tennis bubble.
“She said, ‘I’m coming to Whitworth. Can I still play?’ ” Aldridge recalled. “Yes, yes you can.”
Still, trainers at Whitworth were nervous, Aldridge said, given Kirk’s physical issues. Her right hip hadn’t been repaired, and Kirk was still dealing with pain in her left.
“The trainers saw the health issues she was dealing with and saw they were substantial, so again we thought, she’s not gonna be able to play,” Aldridge said.
But play she did. She went 4-6 in singles and 7-9 in doubles as a junior. This year she was 5-11 and 6-7, respectively.
Yet it wasn’t just the hip issues that Kirk was dealing with. Toward the end of 2017, Elle wasn’t feeling good and was often fatigued. The following January, doctors suspected lymphoma.
And then, on March 2, 2018, doctors told her she had Stage 4 Ovarian Cancer. Marissa was in the Portland area that weekend for three Whitworth tennis matches.
“I hadn’t cried until I told her,” Elle said. “We were just kind of shocked.”
Marissa remembers it similarly.
“I was in so much shock that I started crying. My mom is my only parent, so that was even more scary,” she said. “I don’t know what life would be like without my mom.”
Elle adopted Marissa from Guatemala when she was an infant. While Marissa had cousins growing up in the Seattle area, it was just the two of them at home.
“My mom and I are best friends, and a lot of friends are like, ‘Do you wish you had a dad?’ ” Marissa said. “I cannot see myself having a dad because I’ve had my mom my whole life.”
“I didn’t know what was going to happen from that day on,” Marissa said of her mother’s diagnosis. “I’m the type of person that if it’s something serious, I don’t wanna cry. I didn’t wanna tell anybody. The team didn’t know at all. … I didn’t want people to ask me how she’s doing, or what does that mean, or is she going to die. I had no idea what was gonna happen.”
Marissa will go back to Seattle this summer, where he mother continues to receive treatment. But she will return to Spokane in the fall to finish her psychology degree at Whitworth. Then, she’ll go back to the west side.
“I just plan on finding a job, staying in the apartment, helping my mom out and playing tennis,” she said.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.