PD, by its very nature, is unpredictable. Julie Walker uses that ‘element of surprise’ to her advantage on the tennis court, having taken up the sport – almost by accident – post diagnosis. Here she serves her first article for Spotlight YOPD.
I was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s at 44 in November 2012. I have a walking stick and a blue badge and you might not want me as a tennis partner. On the tennis court: I am slow, I am clumsy, I shuffle. This may not come as a surprise, after all I have just told you I have a degenerative neurological condition, which affects movement.
On the tennis court I am an oxymoron: I can run, I change direction, I have co-ordination. If your ideal tennis partner is someone tidy and helpful with a sassy walk then don’t pick me. If however, you want a tennis partner who plays twice a week, is competitive and quite often confuses the opponents into miss hits, then choose me.
On the tennis court, the game is not the problem; it’s picking up the ball, walking between ends, tidying up and walking to the car park. I obviously need a racket to play, but could also do with a walking stick to change ends.
When I play tennis I don’t have PD.
Stop one minute, have I found a way of reversing PD? No sniggering, stop being a sceptic. After 200 years of looking for a cure, the incredibly clever neuroscientists will have tried most of the ‘obvious’ things, tablets, powders, and electrodes in the brain. I bet they haven’t tried tennis.
Sorry, false alarm, I need to correct that statement. Only when I play tennis I show no signs of PD; my tennis has improved over the years but my Parkinson’s has continued to deteriorate.
A medical trial would mean playing tennis for life non-stop. Presumably the placebo would be playing Buckaroo. In the interests of science I have played a lot of tennis… Obviously permanent tennis has its own problems – when would I compulsively shop?
More Power to your Elbow?
When diagnosed with PD I knew a lot would change. However, I hadn’t anticipated becoming sporty and gaining a genuine sporting injury. I’m proud to say my tennis elbow isn’t from raking leaves but actually from playing tennis. Sadly, it is in danger of stopping me playing. Although, if I have to stop playing I’d rather it be from a sporting injury than from PD.
PD takes away control in many aspects of life, ruling over what I can and can’t do. Tennis is something I can do and is nothing to do with PD.
My elbow is rebelling from overuse, so overused that it is now growing more bone. I have seen the ‘elbow man’ and have taken advice.
So now in order to play tennis: I wear a metal wrist support, I purchased an elbow-friendly racket, I’m having lessons to change my technique and I take 12 tablets a day to manage my PD.
So how did I stumble upon tennis and its advantages to my PD? The first family holiday after diagnosis was an activity holiday. Husband and kids signed up for sailing courses and cycling. Newly diagnosed with much to learn and fearful of my new ‘disease’, I signed up for the safest activity I could find. Confident I wouldn’t drown, get run over or make a fool of myself, Pilates was my choice… But it was cancelled.
I needed something to stop me burning to a crisp in the Mediterranean sun – consequently adding another disease to my list. All things considered, tennis seemed the best choice. Chances of drowning and injury seemed limited. Making a fool of myself was probably the worst that could happen; quite likely since I hadn’t played tennis since PE 35 years previously. I signed up for a beginner’s course.
At the first session, I took the incredibly young coach to one side, and muttered secretively: ‘I have Parkinson’s Disease’. He admitted he knew little about it. I told him briefly I would have trouble running, hitting the ball and changing direction – in effect playing tennis.
First lesson, I had no idea what would happen. Throwing and catching the ball – I could do it. Bouncing the ball to each other – I could do it. Running around the court with the racket – I could do it. Hitting the ball – I could do it. And so it continued. I was actually holding my own among, admittedly, complete beginners.
Encouraged and invigorated by the morning lesson, I joined in social tennis that afternoon. This was playing in doubles matches. Moving up and down the ‘ladder’ according to wins and losses.
Tennis had given me a new-found confidence already. I was about to play as a partner to a ‘normal’ person, who might know something about tennis. I didn’t offer up the PD diagnosis, but I had a beacon, which advertised it to those ‘in the know’. My hand shook while waiting for the serve.
This was day one of being obsessed with tennis, even though we lost a lot of matches. One set of opponents noticed my tremor and whispered to each other; I felt a bit odd being spoken about… We beat them.
At the end of the week I was playing for two hours a day. An hour’s lesson in the morning, and in the afternoon an hour’s social tennis.It was a revelation. It felt good. It was nothing to do with PD. On the last day I was presented with a certificate – ‘most improved player’.
Joining the Club
On returning home, I joined the local tennis club and began lessons. Once I gained some confidence, I joined a beginners’ group, and then an intermediate group.
PD has nothing to do with tennis, but it does add some unintentional tactics to my game: serving to someone who is shaking can be a distraction, shuffling while waiting for a shot can be off-putting… I often watch the ball coming over the net and stand rooted to the spot. The opposition think I’m not going to move. Then suddenly (and often to everyone’s surprise), brain connections fire up, I move swiftly to return the shot.
On that holiday it was early days… Today symptoms and meds are different; tennis is the same. I have played with people who don’t know I have PD, until I walk back to the car park. When I play I feel good. I am not a great standard, but I can hold my own with other beginners. I have a brilliant tennis coach who is very patient with the randomness of me and the PD.
I live in fear of not being able to play. The other day I had a lesson, I was exhausted and nearing the end of my meds. It was the first time I hadn’t been able to play. My hitting was good, but my feet wouldn’t move.
I will ignore that and talk about another lesson: I had a group beginners lesson and coaching for an hour, I won a singles match three games to two, I played a doubles ‘champions/challengers’ game and we were undefeated. By the end I could hardly walk to pick up the ball.
So Wimbledon is the place I’d like to be. Not as a furry litter collector, but actually as a tennis player. It is said that you have five good years after a PD diagnosis. As of this year, I have had 5 good years of tennis. Advantage, me.
Julie writes a blog at http://www.parkinality.co.uk/