Ipswich man Gary Bull says visually impaired tennis has rebuilt his confidence after double stroke
- Credit: James Ager
A former Army serviceman from Ipswich who has defied all odds since suffering a catastrophic medical episode has told how playing tennis has given him a new lease of life.
In 2009, Gary Bull, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during his 22-year military career and was based at Wattisham Airfield, dissected his right vertebral artery while he was running, which caused him to have a stroke.
The now 48-year-old was rushed to hospital where he had another, more violent stroke.
He said: “At my worst my wife was told I probably wouldn’t survive and when I did survive they expected me to wake-up in a vegetative state, but I didn’t.”
Like a true soldier, Gary was determined to improvise, adapt and overcome.
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“I was told I wouldn’t walk again, but I did,” he said. “I was told me left side might not work again, but it does.”
He spent a year at the Headley Court defence medical rehabilitation centre in Surrey, where he miraculously learnt how to get back on his feet.
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The health crisis has left Gary, who has a wife and two children aged 17 and 13, with limited vision and memory problems. He relies on the help of his guide dog, Isla.
Unable to work and with his mental health beginning to suffer, Gary needed to find a new path.
Around two years ago Gary, who was an avionics technician for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers corps, discovered visually impaired (VI) tennis with iFit Suffolk and he now attends sessions at Ipswich Sports Club every week.
“All of us get massive enjoyment and camaraderie out of it,” he said.
“My self-confidence in all areas of life has improved. My fitness is up again and it’s win-win all round.
“It’s the highlight of my week. We are all great friends with each other.
“It’s like a hub of information. If someone is having a problem we can potentially signpost them to the solution because we have all been through it or if someone is down we can help each other.”
VI tennis uses a ball with a bell inside so participants know where to aim their racket, and it is also made of sponge so it doesn’t hurt on contact.
Players are permitted a certain number of bounces before hitting the ball depending on their level of sight.
Guide dogs are welcome at training, which is a relief for Gary and his teammates.
“All the guide dog users go there,” Gary said. “We couldn’t relax unless our guide dogs were comfortable as well.
“Isla gives me the ultimate confidence. If I’m with her things never go wrong.
“With my memory I used to get lost a lot and I used to struggle going out of the house.
“I had a lot of anxiety but with Isla and tennis it’s improved greatly.”
iFit Suffolk was launched in 2015 by Clare Burman and Justin Ballantyne with the aim of helping more visually impaired people in the county to get active.
Only around 12% of visually impaired people take part in sport or physical activity for 30 minutes once a week, according to Clare.
She added: “A huge barrier to participation is the difficulty in finding accessible activities, and mainstream groups willing and able to make adaptations to their sessions in order for them to be more inclusive.
“VI tennis is a fast growing sport in the UK and has been adapted to use smaller courts, lower nets and other adjustments from the standard game to ensure those with a visual impairment can participate in every aspect of play.
“Having such an accessible sport available makes such a massive difference; not just in terms of improving physical health by getting more people active, but also wider wellbeing. Sight loss can lead to feeling quite isolated and having such a friendly and supportive bunch of people to socialise with every week can really get those happy hormones flowing.”
The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) is offering community groups across the UK the chance to bid for a slice of £250 million to transform tennis facilities in their area, with the aim of significantly increasing the number of floodlit and covered courts.
Nina Graveson-Bridge, LTA community business manager in London, South East and East, said one of the goals was to enable more disabled players to pick up a racket.
She added: “This is a phenomenal sum of money and will never happen again. It’s once in a lifetime.”
There will be a chance to find out more at a roadshow event at Ipswich Town Football Club on September 19, or information is available here.