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Kap Smith, 12, practices his tennis game on Friday, Sept. 14, at the University of Colorado South tennis courts in Boulder.
Jeremy Papasso/ Camera
Kap Smith, 12, practices his tennis game on Friday, Sept. 14, at the University of Colorado South tennis courts in Boulder. Jeremy Papasso/ Camera

Kap Smith couldn’t stop coughing.

He coughed so much and so frequently that his parents pulled him out of school. He stopped playing tennis. He couldn’t sleep at night.

Smith was 10 years old when he contracted a strep infection that caused his nonstop coughing– a tic created when strep antibodies interfered with basal ganglia functions in his brain, a syndrome known as PANDAS, or Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections. His brain was forcing him to cough every few seconds, whether he needed to or not.

Smith, now 12, has made a full recovery from PANDAS, and even though he couldn’t play tennis while he was sick, he’s making a big comeback. At the beginning of September, he won a national-level tennis tournament in Las Vegas.

The seventh grader entered the tournament unseeded and won both singles and doubles titles in his age division. He took out the No. 1 seed in his second singles match of the tournament and proceeded to work his way through several Southern California players. That region is renowned for producing competitive young tennis players, according to Kendall Chitambar, of the Rocky Mountain Tennis Center-Boulder.

“I was kind of speechless,” Smith said. “When we got there, I just wanted to win one match.”

PANDAS is a somewhat new syndrome that describes the sudden onset of a tic disorder, or some obsessive-compulsive behavior after a child contracts a strep virus, though the link between the syndrome and strep is somewhat controversial. While Kap couldn’t stop coughing because of PANDAS, some children can’t stop hopping or have other seemingly worse tics, said his mom, Kristi Smith.

The Smith family tried everything — hypnosis, experimental treatments, homeopathic medicine — but nothing would get rid of Kap Smith’s tic. Meanwhile, to keep up with his sport of choice, he watched tennis matches on TV and videos of himself playing before he got sick.

The family flew to Chicago for intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) treatments, a type of blood transfusion used to treat autoimmune diseases, and a somewhat unconventional treatment for PANDAS. Slowly, the treatment began to work. Kap finally stopped coughing after six months of a nonstop, sleep-depriving tic.

He went back to school, picked up his tennis racquet and worked on getting his strength and his life back.

Kap entered the Denver Junior City Open in August, playing in the 14-year-old division and winning the championship match 6-0, 6-0. That’s when Kristi and his dad, Stratton Smith, a former University of Colorado tennis player, knew he was back.

“He lost a good year of tennis,” Kristi Smith said. “But he thought about it. He played tennis in his head, I think.”

Though he’s not entirely sure, Chitambar said he couldn’t remember the last time a Boulder junior player won a national tournament.

“It was an impressive performance,” said Chitamabar, who is one of Smith’s coaches.

Kap, who was named Kasper after his mother’s grandfather, will start taking some of his middle school classes online this year so that he can spend more hours on the court.

He said he hopes to play in college, at Stanford, UCLA or Pepperdine.

“PANDAS was awful because I just had no energy,” Kap said. “But after (I won), I was like, I couldn’t be better.”

–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.