Not long ago at the Aldershot Tennis Club, three players stood together at courtside with a text message telling them their fourth was unable to make it to the game. Not far away, a player was sitting beside an adjacent court. Would they invite her to join them?It all sounds very ordinary and familiar, except when you learn the nearby player was in a wheelchair. As it happens, the three players did extend an invitation. The fourth player did join them, and the result was a happy and energetic game of doubles. For three players, it was a wonderful new experience. And for Gillian Cruz, it was a chance to forget about never-ending nerve pain …. to forget about overwhelming feelings of fatigue. But rather to play and have fun, to be a tennis player just like the others on the court …. just as she remembers doing before Multiple Sclerosis took tennis away from her.
As wheelchair tennis gradually grows in public awareness, we’re becoming more familiar with the sight of players deftly manoeuvring their chairs to reach the ball with perfect timing. It’s great to watch and we think we’re understanding what we see when they play each other. But the best thing for a tennis player in a chair is to be on the court with able-bodied players. As Gillian puts it : “You play running, I play wheeling.” And up-close is the best way for us to appreciate the wheelchair game as well.
Gillian Cruz is 31 years of age. Growing up in Grimsby and attending Brock University, she was an above-average student and athlete, playing soccer as a young girl but then becoming wholeheartedly devoted to ice hockey. Her parents, Ron and Mary Lou Mauro, were very involved in tennis, so when Gillian began her working career and hockey became less practical, she joined them at the Grimsby Tennis Club.
She was 22 years of age when she began to play tennis, and she fell in love with the game immediately. Ron knew the importance of developing good technique, so lessons were arranged with Joel Cruz. They say ‘tennis begins with love’ …. but it also seems ‘love can begin with tennis’. The on-court attention was great for Gillian’s game, but during off court hours it didn’t take Gillian and Joel very long to discover they were meant to spend a lifetime together. They were a beautiful fairy-tale love story!
Gillian and Joel knew she had M.S., though it was early days. It had been diagnosed as an explanation for some minor numbness that had become too persistent to ignore. But M.S. is a disease with extensive variances in how it’s manifest and also in its progressions. Advances and remissions tend to come and go, with patterns difficult to predict. There is always hope that things will get better, or that things will cease getting worse. Gillian was young and strong, to all appearances healthier than most. Surely the disease would slow down; surely her body could heal itself.
The next several years are recounted in detail in a wonderful blog called braverthanyourbattle. Gillian has written essays and recorded videos to document her journey and her experiences. We urge you to visit the site and immerse yourself in the extraordinary entries.
You’ll learn about how she and Joel have coped with M.S. as it overtook their lives far more rapidly than could have been imagined. You’ll learn of the birth three years ago of their beautiful son, Landon. You’ll learn of the stem-cell research project of which she’s a part. And you’ll learn of Gillian’s promise to herself in 2012 that, if she couldn’t return to playing tennis in five years, she’d try to play in a wheelchair.
You’ll also learn that Gillian Cruz is a woman of firm resolve. The summer of 2017 brought opportunities to try wheelchair tennis. But make no mistake : this is a formidable challenge! To make a long story very short, with encouragement from Doug Carter (Niagara Academy of Tennis), and Kai Schrameyer (Tennis Canada national coach), and Laura Wilson (Ontario Wheelchair Sports), and the Grimsby Tennis Club and the Aldershot Tennis Club …. and with remarkable determination by Gillian with the love and support of her family …. Gillian made her wheelchair tennis debut in August at the Birmingham Classic at the Ontario Racquets Club alongside international stars of the game. It was a humbling experience, but also an inspiring one.
To meet the challenge of wheelchair tennis, a custom-built chair is required. Gillian is a small person, so her new chair accommodates her height and her weight and her leg dimensions. The seat has a rocking function that mimics the flow of the body during the overhead serving action. Gillian is very grateful for the $7000 GoFundMe campaign that was generously supported by family and friends.
The chair is a life changer. Gillian is filled with happiness when she’s working at her new passion. In October, she traveled with her father to Calgary for the Birmingham National Championships (finishing 4th out of 6 players), and in January she traveled to Tucson Arizona with Joel for the ITF Arizona Open. Traveling and training are costly. Some support is available from national associations, but only for players who have established themselves on the international stage. Accordingly, Gillian has set herself the lofty goal of rising to #75 in the world rankings.
In the meantime, she’s ours to support and to encourage …. a fellow player in Niagara and in OTA’s SouthWest Region. She has made the choice to share her experience and her journey in the most candid and generous way possible. She needs lots of court time to sharpen her skills, and welcomes an opportunity to meet you and to wheel beside you on the tennis court. Gillian Cruz is a tennis player once again!