Home Stroke Ex-tennis star Connell bouncing back from stroke, jokes also returning

Ex-tennis star Connell bouncing back from stroke, jokes also returning


“What have I learned about people through all this? I’ve learned that community is everything. We wouldn’t have gotten through this part of it without family and friends. We’ve had our moments. You’re going to. But people have always been there for us when we’ve needed them. It’s been pretty amazing. I’m so grateful.” — Sarah Connell, wife of former tennis great Grant

Grant Connell is serving up a lot of thanks these days.

Connell is thanking the many people who have rallied behind him since learning the 54-year-old former tennis star had a stroke on Feb. 19 while jogging at Stanley Park. He has been recovering at the GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver.

He especially thanks those who have checked in on his wife Sarah and their five children, ages 13 to 20. People have regularly been sending food to their home, trying to make things just a little bit easier.

He also thanks those who came to his aid on Feb. 19 — especially the man he handed his cellphone to and asked to call an ambulance. He never got all the names, but he thanks you.

“I had a showing in West Van and I thought I’d just go for a run before,” said Connell, who has been working as a realtor on the North Shore for a decade. “Two minutes in, I started dropping my phone. I did it six times. I couldn’t hold onto it. I started thinking, ‘Heart attack or stroke? Oh please let it be a heart attack.’

“I went end over end. I couldn’t stand up. I managed to get up on the bench. I tried to stand up again and I went end over end again. I was embarrassed.

“I was close to a tourist area and I could hear people asking if I was drunk or something. Finally, I heard a guy go, ‘Does he need help? He looks like he’s flailing.’ I just gave him my phone. I asked him to call 911 because I was having a stroke. I lied down on my back. I knew that I shouldn’t move. I heard the ambulance come. I remember saying to myself, ‘Yeah … I’ve got a chance.’”

Connell doesn’t look that far off his playing weight, back when he was doing amazing things like making it to the No. 1 ranking in the world in men’s doubles in November of 1993 and being named Tennis Canada’s male player of the year five times between 1987 and 1995.

Canadian tennis player Simon Larose, left, and Canadian team coach Grant Connell talk during the Davis Cup match against Dutch rival Martin Verkerk in Maastricht, southern Netherlands on Feb. 6, 2004. (AP photo by Peter Dejong)

He was starting to train for a Tough Mudder, an obstacle adventure race that he was going to compete in with his 18-year-old son Cooper, a 6-3, 190-pound winger who posted 17 goals for the BCHL Coquitlam Express this past season.

Connell has struggled with high blood pressure over the years and admits he didn’t take it seriously enough. He saw his family doctor regularly, but he “cheated” and found ways around his issues for those visits, like “doubling up on my meds.”

He hadn’t taken his medication for three weeks at the time of the stroke.

“It’s as simple as going into your pharmacy and putting your arm in a cuff and checking your blood pressure. Those machines are accurate,” said Connell, who has two friends who have seen their doctors and are now on blood pressure medications since his stroke.

“Just don’t do what I did — look at the numbers and laugh and ignore them or rationalize why they’re high today. If you’re over 145 with the top number, go to your doctor and mention it. I was over 200 when they took me to the hospital. I just basically blew up inside.”

Connell says he’s “married to a saint.” Sarah Connell says she’s “amazed by the positive outlook” of her husband as he works to bounce back.

They’ve been together 25 years, been married for 22. She’s originally from Bermuda, where she was working at a tennis tournament. Grant was playing in the tournament, he asked her out and they went on one date. Months later, she had a job tied to Wimbledon. She ran into Connell there, and they had dinner every night and have been together since.

Sarah works for Beautycounter, a company that sells skin care and cosmetic products. She was flying back from a business trip to Los Angeles, changing planes at YVR and heading to Victoria for another work event the day all this happened. She received a call initially from one of her daughters who was concerned that Grant wasn’t answering his phone.

Former Canadian tennis star Grant Connell at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver on May 15, 2020.

Sarah says he would always answer for his kids, so she found that silence odd but she brushed it off. When she landed on Vancouver Island, the call came from Vancouver General Hospital about what had happened and she frantically made her way back home.

Connell says he didn’t move his first three weeks in hospital. He worried he wouldn’t even get a chance to go to GF Strong, that they might say they couldn’t help him.

The scrappy athlete mentality took over. He improved slowly. He got enough strength back to start walking again with assistance, and he asked that those sessions be put on video. He could both revel in his progress and dissect things that he could improve.

He still has limited use of his left arm and left leg. He still feels most comfortable when he’s able to take someone’s arm. He’s been doing balance and core work and he did some speech therapy early on.

He says his condition has greatly improved, adding he’s far from finished with that.

“It’s the competitor in him. You give Grant a challenge, he’s going to do it,” Sarah said. “His mental strength has always been an asset for him. I know the physios have been impressed with his drive and determination.”

Grant added: “You just never know where a stroke is going to end up. I’m going to go with (Malcolm Gladwell’s) 10,000-hour rule. I’m driven to get better. I have five kids. I want to get back on the field and on the court playing with them.”

Talking about all this, Connell finds lots to laugh about.

Grant Connell joked about cellphone passwords and his five children while discussing his recovery progress at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver on May 15, 2020.

He quips about having a complex password on your phone, because you may have to relay it to someone one day and “it’s hard to do when you’re having a stroke and feel like you have eight Timbits in your mouth.”

GF Strong has psychologists on staff. Connell says he’s found those sessions fruitful, but insists he always asks, “where’s your couch? I always want her to have that couch. I want to lie down on the couch, like in Bob Newhart (1970s TV show).”

He added: “I’ve learned some of the best jokes I’ve ever heard in my life. It’s just that none of them are repeatable right now (for publication).”

There are times, too, when he’s painfully serious.

“I scared the hell out of my kids,” Connell said, followed by a pronounced pause.

Sarah says she’s “super impressed” by how their five children are doing, how they all have “risen to the challenge.”

Madison, 20, just competed her junior season playing field hockey at Stanford. Cooper is committed to play with Bentley University, a school just outside Boston, for the 2021-22 hockey season. Charlotte, 16, is a dancer. Twins Bella and Katie, 13, play a variety of sports.

“I think they all understand that dad is still dad,” Sarah said. “He jokes with them. They feel that safety net.”

Connell is scheduled to be discharged from GF Strong this weekend. Adjustments have been made around the house, with bars added to help him manoeuvre.

His recovery remains a work in progress. Sarah and Grant understand that, and understand there’s help at the ready if it’s required.

“What have I learned about people through all this? I’ve learned that community is everything. We wouldn’t have gotten through this part of it without family and friends,” Sarah said.

“We’ve had our moments. You’re going to. But people have always been there for us when we’ve needed them. It’s been pretty amazing. I’m so grateful.”

Grant added: “I don’t have any reason to complain. I look a little funny right now, but I’m going to be fine.”

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How Grant Connell aced his sport: 

♦ Singles, career high world ranking: No. 67 (June 1991)

♦ Singles, career record: 75-100

♦ Singles, career titles: 0

♦ Doubles, career high world ranking: No. 1 (November 1993)

♦ Doubles, career record: 398-237

♦ Doubles, career titles: 22

♦ Career earnings, singles and doubles combined: $2,911,097

♦ Advanced to Wimbledon men’s doubles finals in 1993, 1994 and 1996. Advanced to Australian Open men’s doubles finals in 1990

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