By David Pickle
People watching the U.S. Open tennis championships later next month probably will not notice Denise Castelli – and that will be fine with her.
Castelli will be one of many ball girls during the two-week event, but she most likely will be the only one with a single leg. If the former New Haven softball outfielder blends in as she hopes, it will be a testament to how far her recovery has come since she was injured April 22, 2008.
“For everyone to look at me the way I was before I lost my leg, that was always a goal of mine,” she said. “I never wanted my friends or family to look at me differently or treat me differently.”
Castelli’s experience began three years ago when she was competing for the Chargers in the final game of the East Coast Conference season. Castelli, who was known for her speed and aggressiveness on the base paths, slid into second and knew instantly that she had broken her leg.
In the moments and hours that followed, her thoughts were about not being able to finish the season or how she might not be able to get across the stage to accept her diploma at her approaching graduation. There was no hint that the next 18 months would leave her in such unrelenting pain that she would regard the loss of the injured leg as the gateway to a new life.
Almost immediately, Castelli suffered from circulatory complications, which in turn led to infection. Early on, doctors hoped they could fix the problem through surgery, but as the months dragged on, reality set in for Castelli.
“It was to the point where I had lost circulation to my leg and the pain was unbearable,” she said. “If the leg wasn’t elevated at all times, the pain was atrocious. So I just remember thinking that if losing my leg meant I could finally go home and be in my own bed and move on with my life, then I might be better off. That’s why I think I was so accepting because I was ready for it.”
Castelli’s right leg was amputated just below the knee in November 2009. Once she was physically ready, Castelli put in four grueling months of rehab. It was hard and humbling at the same time.
“When I first got my leg, I was a little concerned because I wasn’t walking as well as I thought I should,” she said. “I kind of envisioned myself putting this leg on and I’d be running circles around everybody automatically, and it wasn’t going to be like that.”
To solve the problem, Castelli turned back the clock.
Many athletics administrators go a career without facing a catastrophic injury. New Haven Athletics Director Debbie Chin has had to deal with two in three years.
One involved men’s soccer player James Hilaire, who was nearly killed in an on-field collision in 2008. Although Chin didn’t know it at the time, recently graduated softball player Denise Castelli also was experiencing severe complications to a broken leg suffered at the very end of the school year.
“We have the emergency plan, the communication tree, the catastrophic-injury insurance, and you don’t have to use it if you’re fortunate,” Chin said. “But we haven’t been so fortunate.”
The injuries manifested themselves in completely different ways. Hilaire’s was an obvious crisis from the moment it occurred. His survival was uncertain for days after he collided with a Merrimack player.
On the other hand, Castelli’s life wasn’t in danger, at least not at the outset.
“She slid into second base and broke her leg,” Chin said. “It was serious, but we’ve all seen it happen.”
The rest of the month brought some good moments as Castelli collected her diploma and was carried by her teammates in a ceremonial final trip around the bases at the Chargers’ last get-together. But her health quickly deteriorated as circulation problems developed and infection followed.
Early on, the treatment was covered through the Castelli family’s insurance. Chin kept in touch and assumed after a while that the situation had resolved itself when she didn’t hear otherwise. But the next spring, Castelli showed up at a New Haven game still in a cast.
“They didn’t know about the NCAA insurance program and we didn’t know about all the complications because she had graduated right after the accident,” Chin said. “But after we learned what was going on, we were in communication all the time.”
Castelli is busy moving on with her life. She has completed rehab, has resumed competitive softball and will be a ball girl at the upcoming U.S. Open tennis tournament.
Hilaire now works for the government and plans to be married this month.
“After about four months of physical therapy, I was finally to the point where there was really nothing more I could learn and anything else I wanted would be on me,” she said. “I just kept telling myself that when I was a baby and teaching myself how to walk, I didn’t just get up then and walk. I would walk a little and then fall and crawl around and go up the stairs on my hands and my butt. So I just kind of took that and used it to help myself.”
It worked. Lunges became steps, and steps became strides.
She became acquainted with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which granted her a running leg. By this spring, Castelli was ready to take the biggest step yet by returning to competitive softball. She joined modified women’s fastpitch and coed leagues, both made up of able-bodied athletes.
She must have been ready. In her first at-bat, she homered.
“I was flying around bases, going, honestly, oh-my-God, you’ve got to get kidding me!” she said.
But the normal stuff that followed was ultimately more satisfying.
“I feel so good being out there,” she said. “My whole team has so much confidence in me. That’s like the best feeling. You know, if a ball is hit to me, it’s like, ‘She’s got it.’ And if I’m up to bat and they need me to get a hit, it’s like ‘Denise will do it.’ So it’s a really good feeling. I feel like I’m really back to where I was before I lost my leg.”
While Castelli was succeeding at softball, U.S. Tennis Association board member John Korff called the Challenged Athletes Foundation to learn of potential ball girls and boys. Castelli’s name quickly came to the fore, and she was invited to tryouts – along with 500 others.
“It was really intense,” she said. “They had us running to get balls off the net. They were testing us on our agility.”
Castelli did well enough in that part, but then the tryouts turned to a particular strength: throwing the ball across the court. The outfielder was up to the task.
“It took me a few throws to get the feel of a tennis ball, but then my throws were phenomenal,” she said.
After a call back for a second tryout, she got the word that she was an official U.S. Open ball girl. She’ll be ready when the qualifying tournament begins Aug. 23.
Castelli will be trying to do a good job as ball girl, but after all she has been through, she will do her part to raise awareness for people whose lives have been changed by serious injuries.
“It’s important that people never lose sight of the fact that disabled doesn’t really mean disabled,” she said. “It can mean whatever you want it to mean. If you don’t want to get out there and run again or learn to swim or mountain-climb, or whatever, then you don’t have to. But you really shouldn’t let it stop you from doing things. I refuse to let this stop me from doing anything.”