The Michael Bellis Story

“I can’t imagine how good you would be without your disability.”

I’ve heard this comment many times in the two and a half years I’ve been playing Pickleball. I’ve also heard, “Are you ok?” “Did you injure yourself?” “Are you in pain?” I can understand why people are curious, as my mobility issues are obvious. At age 31, I suffered a spinal cord injury that left me permanently disabled, technically an incomplete paraplegic.

I’ve entered a handful of Pickleball tournaments since I took up the game, and being around strangers in new surroundings always creates a lot of speculation about what, exactly, has happened to me. Rumours spread – some true, and others not so much. Let’s just say being attacked by a bear is a bit of a stretch!

The truth is, I was golfing and swung the club like I had a million times before and by the time I had finished my swing, my lower body was completely numb. A disc had ruptured and crushed my spinal cord leaving me paralyzed, a rare condition called cauda equina syndrome. I required emergency surgery followed by a month in hospital and six months of rehab to get on my feet again.

Since my injury in 2005, I had to hang up my golf clubs and leave my job as Director of Golf at a private course. I don’t have the balance and lower body strength to move the ball where it needs to go anymore. While I still enjoy a good round of golf (I can even post a decent score) it’s no longer my passion. I don’t get those butterflies when I head to the course. All those feelings of excitement and joy have been transferred to my new passion: Pickleball!

Post injury, I suddenly went from a high-level athlete to a guy rolling around in a wheelchair. And, like anyone would, I struggled with that reality. My prognosis was all speculation, and after two years I stopped seeing improvements. Defeated, I just gave up. In the years that followed I put on an extra 75lbs. I developed a powerful addiction to alcohol and pain medication and spiraled into a deep, dark mind set.

Recently, I’ve been told I’m the kind of person that people just want to be around, yet back then I was toxic. I merely existed, coasting through the days and years under a black cloud. Thankfully, things have changed. Yes, I am still disabled. I can’t run or jump and I’ll always walk with a limp. I deal with internal issues and chronic pain. Despite this, instead of feeling shame and embarrassment about my condition, I wear my injuries like a badge of honour.

In May of 2012 I had hit rock bottom, so I checked into a drug and alcohol treatment centre. After a life-changing month, I never looked back. While I now live free of my addictions, sobriety and recovery is still a huge part of my daily life. I wouldn’t be writing this story if I had continued down the path I was on. I am proud to say I will be clean and sober three years next month.

As for the 75 lbs, they’re gone too, along with a bunch extra – 135lbs in total! I reached my highest weight in 2010, when I tipped the scale at 360lbs. I look back on those years and feel so sorry for that guy. My whole life I was defined by my athleticism, even putting myself through university on a football scholarship. When that was taken away I totally gave up on myself, and I gave up on life. I don’t think I would have made it through that dark time without the love and support of my beautiful wife, Kristi.

Kristi is a health coach and she could see how much I was struggling, both physically and emotionally. I just wasn’t open to her advice at the time. It put a major strain on us both, and on our marriage. After my month at The Orchard Recovery Centre, I was ready for a fresh start. I had new hope and was prepared to make changes. I walked out the door determined, with the words of my counselor ringing in my ears, “Suit up and show up.” I continue to live by that piece of advice to this day and it has certainly served me well on the Pickleball court.

When I returned home, I told Kristi it was time for me to get healthy, and asked for her help. I fully embraced what has become our health program, and had instant results. I was energized. I gained mental clarity and confidence. After a seven year hiatus, I was reminded how my body is supposed to feel. I also welcomed releasing the extra weight that I’d struggled with my entire life – I’m Haida and have always been “big boned”. I wasn’t capable of going for a jog or doing typical workouts, so you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised to find the pounds falling away easily. I did the activities I could manage. I started with gardening and I walked the dog daily. I got a gym membership and rode the stationary bike. I discovered new workouts I could manage involving core and resistance. And, I watched myself transform.

On a rainy night in November 2012, I had just finished a workout on the bike and was heading home when I heard a voice from the Fairwinds’ gymnasium, “Hey, we need a fourth for Pickleball!” So, I took my motto to heart and joined in – suit up and show up! I figured if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t play again. Obviously, I loved it!

After that first night playing, I came home and YouTubed every Pickleball video there was. I recall wondering, where has this game been my whole life?! I threw myself into learning the skills, playing at least three times a week. I’ve created strong friendships with my Nanoose Bay playing partners and, more recently, have been charmed by the delightful players at the Nanaimo Pickleball Club. I stay in contact with many of the awesome folks I meet when playing out-of-town, and look forward to seeing their improved games and new tricks at the tournaments.

The picklers have become my social circle, on and off the court. Many of them have their own challenges and we lean on each other for support and take inspiration from one another too. I’ve made some true lifetime friendships.

Pickleball has hugely impacted my life. It got me moving again, dramatically improving my mobility and agility. It played a major role in my weight-loss journey. The physical activity and friendships have supported my sobriety. I have rediscovered the confidence I had ten years ago. I’ve submerged myself in the game, the characters, and the community of this awesome game. It’s so much more than winning matches and medals, although the competitor in me enjoys that part too.

by Michael Bellis

Wayne Russell
Wayne Russell