2020 USTA Eastern Junior Courage Award Recipient: Gavin Vander Schaaf
In a personal essay, Gavin Vander Schaaf, USTA Eastern's 2020 Junior Courage Award recipient, details his past experiences and explains how tennis has made a massive impact on his life.
From the day I was born, I was different from other kids. I wanted to be carried at all times. For the first few years of my life, while my sisters and friends were running around, I “scooted” because my legs hurt too much to hold me. I always had very severe headaches, along with swallowing problems, double vision, dizziness, clumsiness, and pins and needles. The pain was excruciating. I always assumed that every other kid had the same pain, so I chose to push through.
When I was five years old, I was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation with basilar invagination, which meant that parts of my brain were extending into my spine. I was told that I’d need to have a brain surgery. This was when I realized that not everyone felt the way I felt, after all. I got taken out of P.E. and recess in school, which hurt almost more than the “Chiari Headaches.” (At that age, the only thing I wanted to do was play!) And so, at five years old, I got my first brain surgery.
Soon after, with Chiari Headaches still plaguing my life, and with obstructive sleep apnea joining forces with central sleep apnea, I needed another, more aggressive surgery. This time, there were complications that made the Chiari Headaches worse and more frequent. They caused significant brainstem compression, multilevel disc desiccation, disc bulges, and cerebrospinal fluid leaks.
Around this time, I was also diagnosed with Celiac Disease and Lyme Disease, which caused my immune system to go to war with my own body. Because of this, I developed a severe vitamin deficiency, which caused nerve pain the doctors called peripheral neuropathy; it still lingers today. However, I never gave up, and I did everything in my power to allow for my body to heal properly.
Years later, in second grade, I woke up one morning and could not stand. Every morning for the next six months, I tried to stand, and my legs continued to betray me. I started to use a wheelchair during this time. Even years after, I would sometimes long for my wheelchair. Not because I couldn’t stand, but because my legs hurt almost too much to stand. But, I didn’t let myself use the wheelchair as a crutch; I pushed through the pain and stood. I always pushed through.
In seventh grade, I realized that I would be too old for little league baseball when the season started. I had actually been “playing” since Kindergarten, but when I went up to bat, I had a “runner,” or someone who would run the bases as me, because I couldn’t do it myself without the feeling of deep regret and excruciating pain the following morning. At that time, I didn’t think that I was ready to join the school baseball team, so I began to feel upset. But one day I came home with a flyer from the local tennis club about a tennis clinic for kids. My sister wanted me to try it because she had been working at that same club for about a year. She made a bet with me: If I tried tennis and didn’t like it, then she would play Pokémon with me. But if I liked it, I had to keep playing.
I did try. I got on the tennis court, and I never enjoyed anything more. I began playing frequently. After working hard for many months, in the spring of 2018, I made the middle school tennis team, playing 4th singles. Two years later, I made the varsity team at my school. Despite the pain that used to fill me almost every single day, which still threatens today, I persevered. Mastering the game vs managing my pain: Match score 6-0 6-0.
I always think of my relationship with tennis as a rally: My life experiences taught me to never take anything for granted, and because of this I always bring 100% of myself to the court. On the flipside, my experiences on court have taught me how to bring 100% of myself to tackle any problem and think critically in any situation. Unlike my wheelchair, I definitely use my tennis racquet as a crutch. A crutch to distract me from my pain, to take my mind off of the stressors of the day, and use my body in ways I never thought possible. Studies have actually shown that tennis generates new connections in the nerves in the brain, which promotes development of the brain. Being able to move past mistakes, evaluate a situation, and problem-solve in the moment during a point translates into real-life situations I face.
One of my favorite quotes is, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I have really learned that wisdom through tennis. I go on court, not thinking about how much pain I’m in. Instead I feel the ball hit my strings as I drive my opponent cross-court, the pounding of my feet on the ground as I run for a drop shot, the feeling of triumph as I ace my opponent “down the T.” Underlying all of these thoughts, I am grateful. Grateful that my 100% is no longer just pushing through the pain to stand up in the morning, grateful that I can run without regret, grateful for Coach Tito Perez for allowing me to share my story, and grateful for tennis, for filling my mind with the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Read more about our 2020 award recipients:
Lifetime Achievement: Ingrid Rehwinkel
Tennis Man of the Year: Daniel Burgess
Tennis Woman of the Year: Adrienne Alteri
Tennis Organization of the Year: Empire Tennis Academy
Tennis Family of the Year: The Perry Family
Adult Courage Award: Mary-Margaret Sohns