Wooden racquet, memory of friend fuels tennis coach Dasso

Michelle Dasso and Terry Brown

By Cole Henke

An old wooden tennis racquet hangs on the wall in head coach Michelle Dasso’s office at Illinois’ Atkins Tennis Center.

Dasso has carried the Wilson racquet with her for her entire tennis career. The padded handle is gone, the white paint worn at the bottom, but it is the fuel to her tennis fire. Dasso hasn’t ever played a match with the racquet. She just likes to look at it.

Ever since she can remember, Dasso’s best friend was Kimberly Brown. Growing up in Long Grove, Illinois, the two girls were inseparable. Dasso and her two brothers saw Kimberly as another sister. Their parents were just as close, so close in fact, that Brown’s mother was Dasso’s godmother.

Dasso and Kimberly hung out almost every day. The two girls did everything together despite contrasting personalities.

“She was definitely the girly girl and she was much more outgoing, while I was more of the shy and sporty one,” Dasso said.

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Kimberly helped get Dasso involved in a lot of activities, including ballet and ice skating, which Dasso admitted she was never any good at.

Their fathers were involved in their daughters’ lives. Kimberly’s dad, Terry Brown, coached many of the girls’ sports teams, and he and Dasso’s father, Ed, would take the girls on rafting trips across the country, which Dasso said the girls loved.

When the girls were 6, Kimberly’s mom signed the girls up for a little hitter’s tennis camp at the tennis club where the Browns were members.

Little hitter’s camp was just one more thing the two girls could do together. From a young age, Dasso showed that she was more athletically gifted than Kimberly, and at the age of 9, Dasso started taking tennis seriously and played in her first tournament — Kimberly stuck to playing tennis casually.

It was around this time that Kimberley gave Dasso a gift. It was Kimberly’s first wooden tennis racquet.

On July 19, 1989, when Kimberly was 11, she and her mother Janice boarded a plane in Denver after visiting some family. The flight was scheduled to land at O’Hare International Airport, but United Flight 232 would never touch down in Chicago. Just as the plane crossed into Iowa, there was a loud bang that made the whole plane shudder.

The center engine of the three engines in the back of the plane had failed, and the pilots immediately initiated the engine shutdown checklist. As soon as they started the checklist, the pilots noticed that the hydraulic systems on the plane were failing as well. At this point, the pilots shut down the autopilot and began to manually descend the plane. After a distress call to the Minneapolis Air Traffic Control Center, they were directed to conduct an emergency landing at Sioux City Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa.

As the crew prepared the passengers for an emergency landing, the pilots began dumping fuel and extending the landing gear. The plane twisted to the right, and with only two engines working, it took all the pilots’ training to keep the plane stable. As they approached the runway of Sioux City Gateway Airport, the pilots straightened the plane out enough to land on the 6,888-foot runway.

The pilots couldn’t control the speed of the plane as it descended, however. When the plane hit the ground, it broke in half in a huge fireball. Fortunately, there was a field at the end of the runway, allowing for the two pieces of the plane to skid to a stop without crashing into anything.

Due to the expert airmanship of the pilots and the quick thinking of the crew, 185 of the 296 people on board the plane survived the catastrophe.

A 10-year-old Dasso was on a bus on her way back from Aurora, Illinois, where she trained for tennis during parts of the summer. Over the radio, she heard the news of the plane crashing. But, being a child, she made no connection between the accident and her best friend’s flight.

It was not until later that she heard the devastating news. She was sitting at home playing Nintendo with her two older brothers, when her mother received a phone call. Dasso was informed that her best friend and godmother were in a major plane crash, and neither of them had survived.

After the accident, Kimberly’s father Terry was determined to still be a factor in Dasso’s life. He supported her through the rest of her childhood, and even took her on a few rafting trips.

Dasso stuck with tennis after the accident, playing it full time, and ended up on scholarship at Notre Dame in 1997. 

Dasso is Notre Dame’s most decorated women’s tennis player ever, the school’s first four-time All-American and the 2001 ITA National Senior Player of the Year.

After she graduated, Terry, along with Dasso’s parents, sponsored her for two years on the U.S. pro tour. She then returned to Notre Dame to be an assistant coach.

“Even when I was in college I knew I was going to be a coach,” Dasso said. “On the pro tour, you are all by yourself, and I always liked the team aspect of college tennis.”

In her third season at Notre Dame, Dasso was named the ITA National Assistant Coach of the Year. After that season, Dasso accepted the head coaching job at Illinois, where she has had further success.

Dasso’s tennis achievements are no surprise to Terry.

“Even when she was young, Michelle showed a lot of potential, and her passion for tennis really showed,” he said. “With her athletic ability, it wasn’t really a matter of if she was going to be successful, but how successful she would be.”

Dasso isn’t driven to success for the awards and recognition.

Dasso’s success is still driven by the memory of Kimberly. She credits Kimberly with getting her started in tennis, and after the crash, Dasso took it upon herself to see just how far she could go with the sport. The end of her tennis career seems to be nowhere in sight.

Now the idea of getting her teams to reach their full potential supplies her drive, but there will always be that wooden racquet on the back wall of her office — along with the memory of Kimberly — to remind her how she started and what gave her the drive to be successful.

“Your childhood best friend is hard to compare to. I have had teammates and close friends in college that have been great friends, but your first best friend just cannot be replaced,” Dasso said.

There was a book released about the Flight 232 crash released in July of this year. It is called “Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival,” and Dasso has a copy, but she can’t bring herself to read it. The book remains on her bedside table, unopened. She doesn’t know when she will read it.

Kimberly’s first tennis racquet hangs in Dasso’s office to this day. It is Dasso’s good luck charm. She is happy, but far from satisfied with her playing and coaching career. Now she works to give her players that same drive.  

“I want them to play hard and dig deep,” she said. “Life is short, sometimes more than others. Play with a sense of purpose and be driven.”

Cole can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @cole_Henke.