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Solko realizes her dream at Bollettieri

BRADENTON - Thok! An opponent lines a serve at Megan Solko.
Thok! Solko lines it back.
"Hit it like this - like this!" yells a tennis coach.
It's just another day of hard work in the sun for tennis players at the IMG Academy. But for Solko, this isn't work. And it's not particularly hard, not considering what she's endured the last year and a half.
With the help of the Children's Dream Fund and the IMG Academy' Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the 17-year-old Solko was a regular on the IMG courts the last two weeks.
In December 2003, Solko was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was her junior, and first, year at Lakewood Ranch High, and she missed the rest of the school year while undergoing treatments. Her cancer has been in remission since May.
Being unable to play tennis was particularly difficult for Solko, who participated in an array of sports growing up.
During her freshman year at Patuxent High School in Lusby, Md., a friend talked Solko into trying out for the tennis team. Solko never had played tennis. Still, she made the team and instantly fell in love with the game.
"I had always played sports," Solko said. "But I had never just loved to be out there for extra hours in the sun. It was just so much fun."
She would play again her sophomore year, begging teammates to stay and play more after practices, swearing it would help them all. During those marathon workouts, Solko and her teammates often wondered what it would be like to play in Florida at the reknowned IMG complex.
"We had heard about this place and dreamed about how cool it would be to play here someday," she said.
These days, Solko can tell you all about the inner workings of IMG. She also knows more than a little about Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer that develops in the lymph system, the body's main defense against infection. It includes the lymph nodes, which produce white blood cells that fight off germs. Hodgkin's usually appears first in the lymph nodes above the collarbone or in the chest.
A couple months after beginning treatment, Solko was referred to the Children's Dream Fund by Dr. Jerry Barbosa, Head Pediatrics Oncologist at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, the facility where she was receiving treatment.
It was then the plan to enter Megan at IMGA was set into motion.
"It was the first thing that came to my mind . . . I just knew I had to do something with tennis," Solko said about being approached by the Children's Dream Fund. "I just loved tennis, I'd played it before, and it was just something that while going through this, I just couldn't wait to get back on the court. It was big motivation, and it gave me something to look forward to."
As Solko was undergoing both chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the Children's Dream Fund was working to set up a day at the Bollettieri Academy, where she would meet founder Nick Bollettieri and even play tennis with the man who had worked with tennis greats such as Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and more recently, 2004 Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova.
Although Solko was still too sick to play tennis, both parties kept their promises, and Megan eventually got her day with Bollettieri.
"We had to wait for her treatments to be finished and her blood counts to come up," said Joanne Lanning, Dream Coordinator for the Children's Dream Fund. "When we finally got Megan together with Bollettieri, he treated her like a VIP."
After that meeting, the Dream Fund moved ahead with the next phase of its plan for Solko.
"We called IMG and asked what they could do," Lanning said. "They, along with Bollettieri, donated one week of training for her, and we provided the second week."
The WTA Tour also contributed by donating tennis outfits, visors and equipment bags and books. On the morning of June 6, Solko took to the IMG courts for the first time following a dream presentation and a celebration of her life.
"At the end of the day, I'm pretty tired," Solko said during the first week of her training.
Solko, who returned for her senior year at Lakewood Ranch and graduated last month with a 4.142 grade point average, still is experiencing side effects from her treatments.
"But I don't want a break, and I don't want any special treatment. I'm just so happy to be out there, and it'd be real hard to get me off the court when I don't need to," she said while training at IMG.
"This is a great chance for Megan to get more confidence about herself," Patti Lippert, Solko's mother, said last week. "This is a good opportunity to get her strength back, feel normal and be a lot more social. She thought she would never play tennis again."
Solko plans on attending Manatee Community College in the fall to pursue a career in teaching.
Lately, though, all Solko has had to worry about was that next serve coming from her opponent.

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