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Jaeger focuses on serving God, helping kids

March 11, 2007|Eddie Pells | Associated Press

HESPERUS, COLO. — The waist-length pigtails are gone, replaced by a layer of dusty blond hair so short it doesn't need a brush. Those '80s tennis skirts are history too. In their place, a black nun's habit belted with a band of white rope that her dogs like to chew.

One constant: Sister Andrea Jaeger isn't quite who everyone might think she is.

Even when she was a teenage tennis star -- all backhands and braces -- she knew she wouldn't last long in that world, though hers was not a typical tale of burnout or overbearing parents. She succumbed to an injury early. When it took her off the court for good, she felt a sense of relief, because it allowed her to pursue her real passion -- helping children.

Through all that, she built a profound relationship with God, one that gave her direction at first, then the strength and motivation to navigate the good and bad times that came later.

A few months ago, at age 41, Jaeger became a Dominican nun -- the next, but not final, step on a journey hardly anyone could have envisioned in the '80s while she was perfunctorily dispatching women twice her age on the tennis court en route to No. 2 in the world.

"I didn't do anything according to a formula people were used to seeing," said Jaeger, still trim and fit even though she rarely plays tennis anymore.

She told about one of her first visits to see sick kids, after she sneaked away from Madison Square Garden to visit the Helen Hayes Hospital, north of Manhattan.

In one room, a girl was rigged up to a huge IV pole and she carried it around pretending it was her dance partner. Another was bald, and Jaeger figured that girl would be jealous when she reached out and felt Jaeger's long pigtails.

"But she gave me a look, like, 'You've gotta wash and dry that?" Sister Andrea said. "At that very moment, I felt like God was saying to me, 'When you grow up, you're going to help kids stuck in the hospital.' At 15, I thought, 'This tennis thing is great, but it's not what I want to do when I grow up.' "

Jaeger described her evolution into the sisterhood as a process and a calling, not a sudden decision. Becoming a nun meant a change in uniform (she is currently without her veil, because the dogs got hold of it and chewed it up), but didn't alter much in her outlook. She has always had a good relationship with God. She has always worked hard to help others.

Nuns these days have come a long way from when they threw erasers and rapped the knuckles of misbehaving Catholic school children.

Jaeger is a Dominican Anglican nun. She doesn't have to live in a convent and can live what, to others, might be seen as a "normal" life. She did, though, take vows and must live a life devoted to service.

She's not alone. Though statistics show a decline in the number of nuns -- from nearly 180,000 in 1965 to 66,000 last year, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate -- there is anecdotal evidence of a recent surge of women joining the sisterhood.

For instance, the Dominican Sisters of Mary in Michigan started with four sisters 10 years ago; there are now 71.

"I think women who are getting older might want to dedicate their lives and commit to something," Jaeger said. "So, hey, if you always want to know you made the right choice, dedicating your life to God is always going to work. Because he'll lead you to wherever it is."

The place for Sister Andrea is a ranch outside Durango, Colo., the new home of her life's work -- the Little Star Foundation. After she blew out her shoulder in the 1985 French Open at age 19, Jaeger poured the $1.4 million she'd earned, bit by bit, into an effort to help young cancer patients and other disadvantaged children.

Part of the liquidation included selling her Mercedes. As a tribute to her father, Roland -- who taught her the game thinking it would allow her to live a life of leisure as an adult -- she saved the German license plate from the car and brought it home as a present.

"He was horrified that I'd sold the car," Jaeger said. "I knew he liked the license plate. I thought I was being sensitive. It took him like 10 years to get over that."

It wasn't until years later, when he saw his daughter handing out awards at a ceremony for her kids, that Roland Jaeger came around.

"He said, 'This is my proudest moment. No tennis trophy can compare to this,' " Sister Andrea recalled.

And finally, a father who had seemed more like a coach to this young phenom, understood.

He's not the only one.

"I am so amazed at how you knew your purpose at such a young age," Diane Peacock, whose son has cancer and has been touched by Jaeger's kindness, wrote to Jaeger recently. "Your spirit and enthusiasm is very clear, and we thoroughly enjoyed your visit."

Sister Andrea's enthusiasm has led many celebrities, in and out of the tennis world, to donate time to her cause.

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