Strong Women is a weekly series that champions diversity in fitness and sport.
Every week we are celebrating the women who have overcome adversity – big or small – and are redefining what strength means to them.
So often women are told that they have to look a certain way in order to be healthy and strong – but women of any age, race, size and ability can be fit, strong and love their bodies.
By highlighting different stories of strength, we hope to empower more women to feel welcome in the world of fitness and feel confident enough to get active.
Cornelia Oosthuizen is a professional wheelchair tennis player. She was discharged from the Army and left in severe pain after an injury – but finding a talent for wheelchair tennis turned her fortunes around.
Tell us about your injury and diagnosis – how did it affect your life?
I used to be in the British Army and served for just over ten years – I was an army tennis player; captain of the Army ladies’ team for some time.
We had some success at the combined service championships which rather fabulously was hosted at Wimbledon which obviously I, as a tennis player, was like: ‘oh wow’. So I’ve always been a keen tennis player.
My first childhood dream was to win Wimbledon, as I’m sure a lot of tennis players will say.
I served in the military and was injured – nothing heroic, not on operations luckily – but I developed a condition in the summer of 2014 when I was injured, ironically while I was playing tennis; a neurological chronic pain condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (or CRPS for short).
Essentially that is a malfunction of the nervous system and it communicates to the brain that the effected limb is in pain, whether that limb is actually in pain or not.
It was a severe level of pain to the extent that I had to go onto very strong medication – including opioids and morphine related tablets. This led to me being discharged from the military in spring 2016.
I continued to deal with the condition and the rehabilitation issues and trying to do everything I could to sort out the CRPS, which was fairly all-consuming and my life changed quite a bit as a result.
However, because of my military linkage, a friend of mine from army tennis days coaxed me into going for the trials of the Invictus Games in 2017, so I thought although I was limited to what I could and couldn’t do physically, I trialled out for a few different sports, including wheelchair tennis.
I absolutely loved it. It was not a hard sell; footwork was never a strength so it was handy to be on wheels! And I was very lucky to make the team for the Invictus Games in Toronto in 2017.
We did very well in terms of the GB contingent there, the first doubles team won the gold and my partner and I took the bronze medal.
I was ‘talent’ spotted by the LTA and invited to the adult development programme at the end of the year.
In 2018 I self-funded getting myself on to the wheelchair tennis tour, sort of in a semi-pro capacity, and managed to get myself into the top 50 by the end of last year.
I was then invited by the LTA to become a performance player and turned professional – just January of this year – which is fabulous.
I get out of bed every day and think: ‘This is the best job I have had in my life’ – I’ve had a few good ones, don’t get me wrong, but this is by far the best.
So life in a weird way has come full circle and I am now a tennis pro and the immediate target is to qualify for Tokyo for the Paralympics; and develop my game to medal in Paris in 2024.
And clearly to get my ranking so I can compete in – and hopefully win – a grand slam, Wimbledon being the top one for obvious reasons!
What have been the biggest obstacles in your development as a tennis player?
From a technical perspective – obviously we’re very lucky that wheelchair tennis is fundamentally very similar to able-bodied tennis – apart from the fact that the ball can bounce twice, which is very handy in a wheelchair.
What I found tricky however, as I was used to playing able bodied, was that the movement was very different and counter-intuitive to how I had played before. I want to move sideways and towards the ball – as opposed to diagonally and away from the ball.
I struggled with coming to terms with the chair as an extension of my body. Getting the chair to help you maintain momentum – working with it – is something I am developing and there is some way to go there in terms of changing my mind-set.
Mentally, I think it’s about getting used to developing your abilities at a much higher level than as a recreational player.
It is a very different mentality to be a tennis ‘pro’, and again it’s a wonderful challenge to develop your game and your mentality.
From a physical perspective, before I had my amputation, which was at the back end of last year, dealing with the chronic pain and medication and the side effects was arguably the most tricky aspect of trying to optimise the opportunity I was given.
It was tricky to manage to be physically robust enough to have enough energy to do a proper job on the tennis court – when you practice and when you train, versus the body just dealing with chronic pain non-stop – there were limits to what I could achieve with the medication I was on.
The side effects had a significant effect on my cognitive abilities, but since the amputation, luckily things seem to be going really well in terms of the chronic pain, which seems to have dissipated which is great.
I still have some acute and sometimes phantom limb syndrome, which most amputees tend to, but in terms of what it used to be, it’s a very different world and I am trying to wean off medication in total which has made a big difference physically, mentally and emotionally.
What do you love about tennis? How has it helped you come to terms with your disability?
I’m a tennis geek!
The catalyst was my CRPS. I was always a very active person and my life turned pretty much on its head when I was diagnosed.
Initially, I wasn’t able to do much of anything physically and my ability to walk was increasingly affected. The extent of the pain I was in and the side-effects of the medication really just cocooned my life, and became all-consuming.
I was initially loathe to try wheelchair tennis – probably a reluctance to come to terms with my ‘disability’ – but I decided I had to go and see what I could do now I was differently abled.
As soon as I got that feeling back – I was competitive, I loved sport, especially tennis and after that first session I just thought – ‘what took you so long?!’
So then I was hooked. It was a constructive outlet to re-balance my life and get back to engaging with the world around me – which I had avoided with my CRPS. I’ve been very, very fortunate with the trajectory that I’d had as a result.
The Invictus Games meant I was also selected for the Paralympic Inspiration Programme through Help for Heroes, and all of that re-engagement with life through sport has brought me to a place where I’m so much more positive, mentally and emotionally, than a year or so ago.
It’s not just down to the tennis and the sport, but that is a massive part of it.
What advice would you give to other women with this condition?
It’s different for each individual and I think a lot of it depends on the support network that you may or may not have access to, but beyond that, ultimately it comes down to you making a choice.
Initially you do feel sorry for yourself. It is a loss and you do mourn; for the person you used to be physically and what you were able to do. It’s right and proper to have that time-frame, but there comes a time where you choose to put that behind you and move on.
I think we’re lucky in this country and at this time, that technology is unprecedented – it’s almost criminal not to give something a shot because you might actually find that you are pleasantly surprised at what you still can do, or what you can do differently.
With the Invictus Games for example, I thought I would give golf a try, which was never on my radar and I really, really enjoyed it and found it, in a way, quite therapeutic which was an added benefit.
In a nutshell, my advice would be – just go it. You have nothing to lose and there are just two outcomes: You’re going to realise that this is not for me, or you’re going to go about it in a different way and discover something new.
Whether recreational or elite, sport just changes people’s lives – they re-engage, you see the sparkle reappear in their eyes and it takes away some of the more difficult aspects that a disability or illness perhaps, may have on your life.
What does the term ‘strong woman’ mean to you?
If I have to try and distill it, it probably comes down to two things – from a personal perspective, it’s two words: ‘choice’ and ‘faith’.
My faith plays a big part in my life and it has certainly helped with tricky bits – it’s definitely something that enables me to be a ‘strong-ish’ woman.
And the other one is choice – it’s sometimes easier said than done, but fundamentally you have a choice about whether to go for something, choose to see the positives, or not.
I think that strength is to choose to get up again when you fail, whatever that ‘failure’ may look like in broader life.
Being a strong woman infers that you learn from those failures and you give it another shot. You keep at it.
Inspired by Cornelia’s story? Check her out in the LTA’s new short-film and get on court this summer with a host of free, open weekends and opportunities to play.
I am Team GB
Toyota has teamed up with Team GB to re-launch the hugely successful participation campaign ‘I am Team GB’.
Inspired by the achievements of Team GB athletes and the amazing efforts of local community heroes, Team GB has created ‘The Nation’s Biggest Sports Day’, which will take place on the 24thAugust.
Over the weekend, there will be hundreds of free and fun activities across the country, put on by an army of volunteers; the ‘I am Team GB Games Makers’.
To Join the Team and be part of The Nation’s Biggest Sports Day sign up at: www.IAmTeamGB.com
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