‘Wheelchair tennis saved my life’: Grimsby tennis star’s athletic journey after shock diagnosis

Gillian Mauro said the physical and emotional benefits of wheelchair tennis were

Gillian Mauro has always been competitive, but when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010, the rising tennis star faced her toughest challenge yet.

Prior to 2012, Grimsby-born Mauro played tennis competitively and it was one of her greatest passions.

However, two years after the shocking diagnosis, her condition deteriorated to the point where she could barely move to get the ball between the points, and she made the devastating decision to stop playing.

“I was just in tears,” she said.

Mauro was coping with the loss of her favorite sport, but also with the symptoms of the disease: severe nerve pain from torso to toes and fatigue at levels she struggles to communicate to others.

The double blow was hard.

“To go from being so active…was really depressing,” she said.

In 2017, Mauro decided that although she couldn’t play tennis without a disability, but had to be on the court, she would give wheelchair tennis a try.

After attending a session organized by the Ontario Para Network (ONPARA), she was determined to make the change.

One of the biggest hurdles to getting into the sport, however, was getting the specific wheelchair, which costs thousands of dollars. Fortunately, his friends started a fundraiser and quickly collected the money.

Embracing sport changed Mauro’s life. Not just for the competitive element she craved, but also for the impact it had on her day-to-day life.

“(It) made life better both physically and emotionally,” Mauro said.

Physically, the physical form resulting from the sport helped in the daily activities. Emotionally, it helped her reframe her diagnosis and her outlook on life. “Wheelchair tennis…made me realize what I could do, not what I couldn’t.”

“(It) saved my life,” she said.

After a COVID-enforced hiatus, Mauro returned to play this summer and competed in an international tennis tournament at Grimsby Tennis Club.

On July 23, she was one of the torchbearers of the Grimsby Torch Relay before the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games.

And, in 2020, Mauro published his book “The Girl In The Wheelchair: It’s Not That Bad” via Amazon.

ONPARA helped bring Mauro into the sport through the tryout, one of many the organization runs. They hold the sessions in community spaces or rehabilitation clinics, where athletes talk to patients about the possibilities of practicing wheelchair sports.

Patients often still have to adjust to their new lifestyle after injury or illness, but Doug Hannum, ONPARA’s chief executive, said it’s their job to show them the opportunities to get into the wheelchair sports.

He said many athletes whose sporting lives have been changed after an injury often have a sparkle in their eyes once they are introduced to the sport.

“Our job is to light that fire,” Hannum said.

Not everyone has a support system like Mauro, who can fundraise for the necessary equipment. To help with this, the organization also offers wheelchair loans to those getting into wheelchair sports, reducing financial barriers.

ONPARA receives funding from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport through the Ontario Amateur Athletic Fund. The amount they receive is calculated from ONPARA’s application to the program, said Zakiah Lalani, spokesperson for the ministry.

In March 2022, the ministry announced an investment of $3 million to stabilize the sports and recreation sector after Covid. ONPARA received funding to grow its network by working with targeted provincial sport organizations to include more para-athletes in their member clubs.

From 2021 to 2022, ONPARA also received funding from Quest for Gold to support team training camps.

“Our government is proud to champion the participation of all in sport and recreation across the province,” said Lalani.

Although grateful for the support they received, Hannum said the organization could always use more funding.

This is partly because ONPARA only has about 300 members, far fewer than sports like football, so it cannot raise as much money through membership fees.

With additional funding, ONPARA could spend more on staff to provide athlete and program support, and to provide more individual funding to athletes, such as assisting with the purchase and maintenance of wheelchairs.

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: After hearing about Gillian Mauro’s story, Chris Pickles spoke to ONPARA about getting athletes into the sport and the funding issues they face.

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