I was 13 years old and on the soccer field one day when a shooting leg pain took me out of the game. I had been noticing an intermittent pain for a while, but thought it must have just been growing pains. The next day I was standing in front of the physiotherapist and she pointed out that the muscle on my right leg had wasted away. I could tell that she thought there was something very wrong with that.
An x-ray showed that the texture of the bone in my right hip wasn’t smooth like it was meant to be. Soon after that, an MRI confirmed a tumour. I remember my mother’s reaction – she burst into tears, looked terrified and I started feeling scared. At the time, my youngest brother was only 6 months old, I had three brothers and my diagnosis kind of took over our family life.
My grandmother moved in to help while my parents did a tag team of shifts at the hospital. There was not a single night during that time that I was left alone and that must have been very tough on them. In total I spent around 3 years in and out of hospital. During that last year, I got more comfortable with spending time there by myself. My parents brought up my siblings when they could and also friends came to visit me.
The pain was intense and I was living in survival mode. I had 14 cycles planned of chemotherapy and a major surgery, which included removing my hip, radiating it and putting it mostly back with a partial hip replacement. At the 13th cycle of chemo I was hit with a major infection that resulted in 20 more operations, this only ended with removing my right hip completely.
This hit me hard as I realized that I would never play soccer again. Sport had been everything to me before I had found out I was sick and running around with my friends had been a huge part of my identity.
I sunk into a dark place of depression when I was on bed rest after so much surgery. I was suicidal at that time; I couldn’t see the point of living anymore. Going back to school with my cane, a 10cm difference between my leg lengths and wearing a heavy shoe raise that made it painful to walk didn’t help. My life had changed so much in my time in hospital that I couldn’t connect with everyday teenage conversations, they seemed irrelevant and that made me confused and frustrated. I wandered through school feeling isolated and misunderstood, at times avoiding class to be alone in the library or outside. The kids and teachers let me be.
I lived on a very comfortable couch at home losing myself in computer games and my parents were desperate to help me find a way off it. One day they asked me if I would be keen to take a look at a wheelchair sports and maybe give it a go. I was an awkward 16 year old and was used to avoiding people socially so when one of the organizers asked me if I wanted to try wheelchair basketball, I said No. I didn’t feel like being involved in a team sport at that time. When the coach told me they would be playing wheelchair tennis the following week, something about it peaked my interest.
So, here I was one week later, in a borrowed wheelchair and an old racket I had played with as a younger kid. I didn’t have a backhand and I couldn’t move the wheelchair at all, but I was out in the sun, my heart was racing and it ignited something in me. Something in my spirit lit up and it saved my life.
It was an exciting time, playing sport again. Six months after I started, I went to a junior camp in Adelaide and met the National coach and other players. I was still walking around everyday with my cane, but I got to meet people who were permanently in their wheelchair, living their lives not letting anything stop them, passionate, they knew how to have a good time. It helped change my perspective because up until that time I hadn’t been around anyone else who was living with physical challenges. It helped me realize that life goes on and that was still possible to live an amazing life.
Soon after, I was selected for the Australian Junior team which meant that I would be travelling to Poland and Sweden and I got see some of the best players in the world. Watching them I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I went as the Number 3 player in our team and didn’t expect to play. The Number 2 got sick and at my only second tournament ever, I heard the words “Adam, you’re up!” I didn’t win that match but it was an incredible experience.
After high school I was offered a scholarship to the University of Arizona to study and play tennis. I came home in December 2011 to take a year off to work on qualifying for the 2012 Paralympic games. In January 2012, I was ranked 61 in the world and at the Sydney International, my home tournament I drew Number 6 in the world first round. On the court, I looked over to see my Dad pacing and it was such a cool feeling in front of all my family and friends to win that match which gave me the qualifying ranking I needed for the Paralympic games.
The experience of being in London at that opening ceremony was mind blowing. I won two rounds in the singles and it was fantastic to have my family there with me, cheering me on.
Alongside tennis I knew I needed to find other tools to give my mind and body as much energy and resilience as I could. Over the past few years I have embarked on a journey of self reflection and found that attending workshops on self discovery, opening up emotionally and learning more about healthy living and eating have given me a lot of new insights. It has opened up a new world to me, living this way, buying my food from organic markets, learning about self healing and continually unfolding new understanding about where my life is leading me.
In 2013 when I was in San Diego, a friend took me to yoga for the first time and I have been practicing on and off ever since as well as now having a regular meditation practice. I see the benefit of counteracting the intensity of sport and a full on lifestyle with finding calm and more stillness within. For me, staying focused on tennis and keeping myself busy with an exciting life travelling the world I could have easily ignored the traumatic emotions locked away from my journey with cancer. Taking the time to explore and release those emotions has made me a healthier human being in mind and body.
Bringing your focus outside of yourself is another great healing tool and more than that, it just feels great to see people learn from my journey. It also makes more sense of what you have been through if you can use that experience to help other people in a similar situation. In a few weeks I am taking a trip to Tanzania and Kenya to deliver old tennis wheelchairs, rackets, clothes and gear to tennis organizations. I will also be visiting a charity that hires disabled workers and supports them into housing. I am travelling with a friend who will be making a documentary about disabled rights and highlighting disability sport. My hope for this trip is to bring awareness of life with a disability in Africa and hopefully inspire people in Australia to be more active in society and wheelchair sport.
Hopefully this documentary will send a wider message of what is possible for disabled people.
I am driven to share my story and what I have learned with people of all ages including high school kids. I enjoy connecting with people and telling them how I overcame extreme adversity and how it is possible to turn the ship around. One in four kids are suffering from depression or anxiety and the number is rising. It’s time to take action against this epidemic!
What has helped me overcome my own challenging times has been to focus on what I am grateful for in this life. I see that I have had an amazing journey and am lucky to live in such a beautiful country. Learning to be grateful for the small things has helped me get past my depression and pain. It has also inspired me to see possibilities for my life to make a difference in this world.
Life is good and it’s only going to get better!
Adam Kellerman @adamkellerman or http://www.adamkellerman.com
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