For more than 50 years, Loretta Conway has worked as a certified tennis coach, teaching children and adults alike the game of tennis. But it’s the game of tennis that has taught Conway so much more.
“I love the competition of the game – the physical aspect and the exercise, yes, but the mental part of it is really where it teaches you a lot of good life skills,” said Conway. “You go into a match with an idea of how you’re going to play, but every opponent is different, and you have to adjust. Just like in life, there are times you win, and there are times where you lose. Those have been some of my favorite times on the court, being down and fighting to come back.”
Facing bilateral knee replacements on May 26, 2023, some would say Conway’s body had lost the match. Rather, like a match that comes down to the last point in every set, Conway plans to come from behind and come out on top.
Connection and belonging
Conway first picked up a tennis racket when she was about 12 years old.
“My grandmother taught me to hit back and forth,” she said. “It was something we could do together.”
A family move forced Conway to change schools in Memphis, Tennessee, during her freshman year, a time of life that can be difficult for teens, especially as Conway was missing her friends. But then she saw the Raleigh Egypt High School tennis team practicing.
“I had never really played an actual tennis match and hadn’t been formally coached as there wasn’t money for that. But I knew how to rally the ball back and forth,” said Conway. “The coach gave me a chance and let me on the team.”
She spent three years on the high school team, graduated a year early, then played for Lambeth College in Jackson, Tennessee.
“I always played, no matter what I did or where I was,” recalls Conway. “After having two children, we were living in Cape Coral, Florida, and there were tennis courts in the neighborhood. I started teaching for the fun of it, then pursued a teaching certification through the United States Professional Tennis Association.”
That led to Conway volunteering as a section leader for the United States Tennis Association in Fort Myers, Florida, and eventually working as a community development director for the organization.
“My job was to grow the sport,” said Conway. “I was being paid to share something I love with others in the hopes that they may grow to love it, too.”
The tennis courts in Florida were also where Conway fell in love with her now-husband of 18 years, Bill Conway.
“We’d been friends for a few years, but I didn’t realize what a great guy he was until I saw him hitting balls with kids in the pouring rain during an event,” said Conway. “It really showed his integrity to be out there with them, and they were all having a great time.”
A vision for court development
Bill and Loretta married in 2005 and moved to California to be closer to family, which led to Loretta joining forces with others to found the San Francisco Tennis Coalition while still working in community development for the USTA.
“The courts in Golden Gate Park were in terrible condition,” said Conway. “We talked to the parks and rec department and said, ‘If we help raise the money, can we develop this into something beautiful, a place where people will want to play tennis?’ It was a ‘yes.’ The project raised $23 million, and the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Tennis Center is now a breathtaking facility.”
Just over ten years later, Conway is bringing a similar vision and drive to an expansion project at Steamboat Tennis & Pickleball Center. She’s the executive director there, while Bill serves as the Center’s director of operations.
“It is a great facility, and we want it to be a place where everyone feels welcome,” said Conway. “There is so much potential to continue fostering a love of tennis in our community. And pickleball, my goodness, has it taken off in the last few years. We want there to be courts for everyone.”
The expansion project has served as a motivator for her, as she wants nothing more than to play on the new courts. But while construction happens at the Center, Conway would require a little reconstruction of her own.
“After playing tennis for this many years and adding in pickleball, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have to have something done to my body,” she said. “I could tell it would be my knees. But really, how blessed are we that a new body part can be put in, and we can keep going?”
Doubles – in the operating room
Conway was referred to Dr. William “Bobby” Howarth, an orthopedic surgeon whose practice focuses on knee and hip osteoarthritis and trauma.
“Like many Steamboat residents who have been active all their life, Loretta wore out the cartilage in both knees, and the daily pain was slowing her down,” said Howarth. “Many patients with knee osteoarthritis pursue joint replacement to continue to stay active, something Loretta wants to do for many years to come. With total knee replacements, she can and will.”
Deciding to proceed with knee replacements was one thing. Deciding to do them at the same time was another.
“People gave me reasons why I shouldn’t do both at once,” she said. “I listened to them, but for me, it was the right thing to do. I couldn’t think of doing the other knee after the first one. And I wasn’t scared of the work it would take on my part.”
“Bilateral knee replacement patients require a specific motivation, very good health going into the procedure, a good post-op plan with rehabilitation, and a loving spouse or partner close by to help,” said Howarth. “But more importantly, it requires a little more grit to fight through the pain than most patients. I have become much more selective on patients seeking bilateral knee replacements, but Loretta checked the necessary boxes.”
Conway said knowing she could do the knee replacements at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, a short five-minute drive from their home, also made her confident in her decision.
After bilateral knee replacement surgery
“My procedure was on a Friday afternoon and the next day, the physical therapist had me up and walking,” said Conway. “We even tackled stairs that day! If they were telling me I could do it, I was sure going to try, and I figured it out.
“The minute I had a question or needed something,” she continued, “it was a quick push of the call button, and someone was in my room and addressing what I needed before I knew it. I was very well taken care of. They were on it, and I was on my way home.”
Conway encourages others to consider staying local for their care as well.
“Each person should do their own research and seek care where they’re most comfortable,” she said. “For me, I didn’t need to travel. I totally trusted Dr. Howarth and the staff at UCHealth – the way they treat you is incredible. Had I needed immediate or emergent care after the procedure or once I was home, I knew my team was close by.”
That comfort, paired with a meal train from friends and unwavering support from Bill, gave Conway the reassurance that she could come out on top when all was said and done.
Recovery, rehabilitation and returning to everyday activities
According to Howarth, and depending on the patient, most people who have knee replacements return to activities just a few months after surgery. Conway credits her physical therapist for the steady progress she’s been able to make during recovery and was surprised to be riding an exercise bike at only two weeks post-op. She set her sights on early September – just three months after surgery – to put a racket back in her hand.
“My goal was to play on the new courts when they open,” she said. “I may not be ready for a set or a full match, but I want to be out there hitting again.”
As she continues to heal, Conway is already looking forward to long hikes with Bill and their dogs, backcountry ski touring excursions and rides on her gravel bike.
Tennis, though, is still where she finds so much joy.
“It’s so much more than a sport to me,” she said. “It has literally changed my life for the better and has opened doors for me – which is why introducing new people to tennis and pickleball is so important to me. I believe it can do the same for others. Because of tennis, I have met so many wonderful people from all walks of life, some of the poorest to some of the richest, and people of all ages.”
Conway has hit tennis balls at the USTA Billing Jean King National Tennis Center in New York where the US Open is played, interacted with tennis greats like Andre Agassi, Venus and Serena Williams, and Andreas Seppi, and has seen life-long mentorships develop on the court.
It’s the laughter with friends, though, that she can’t wait to get back to.
“We just laugh our heads off when we get to play together,” said Conway. “We laugh with each other, at each other, at mistakes, at great shots. It’s just a ball of fun.”