Pete and Maria Castelli stood to the side, tears streaming down their faces as their daughter, Denise, sprinted up and down an indoor turf field at New York’s Chelsea Piers.
It took one clinic for Castelli to run again. One session, after needing two months to learn to walk again. One session, after a year and a half of pain in her right leg that eventually led to a below-the-knee amputation. One session, after two years of a frustrating journey that followed an awkward slide into second base in a college softball game.
This was hardly the first — or the last — of the emotions. Watching their daughter run with her prosthetic leg that day in June 2010, the Castellis bawled.
“The light came on,” Pete Castelli said. “And of course, the people that ran the clinic were like, ‘Wow.’ We were in tears watching her run again — the fastest she ever did.”
One year after that clinic — organized by the Challenged Athletes Foundation — Denise Castelli, a Netcong native, sprinted along the nets of a side court in Flushing Meadows, chasing stray tennis balls during a U.S. Open ball girl tryout. Thursday, less than two years after the lower half of her right leg was amputated, Castelli will find out if she has been selected to work as one of 80 ball girls or boys for the country’s premier tennis tournament in August.
Castelli was one of two amputees to try out, part of an initiative developed three years ago by John Korff, director at-large on the United States Tennis Association board of directors.
“She’s clearly got the endurance, the strength and the presence to be able to do this in front of 20,000 people,” Korff said. “She’s the quintessential … spokesperson for something like this.”
She knew right away her leg was broken.
The University of New Haven had the April 22, 2008, game well in hand in the seventh inning, but Denise Castelli was one of the Chargers’ speediest baserunners.
With no outs, she got the steal sign. She took off for second, and broke into an awkward slide. Her right leg got caught under her left and she felt it snap. She crawled to the base before the tag, but she knew.
“Coach!” she screamed. “I broke my leg!”
She had no idea, though, of the complications that would follow.
It wouldn’t heal. Debbie Chin, New Haven’s athletic director, talked to Castelli periodically after she graduated. Each time, she was bewildered at how her leg wasn’t getting healthier.
In the year and a half that followed her injury, Castelli was in Morristown Memorial Hospital more than out. She saw specialist after specialist. She underwent 37 surgeries.
There was always another small problem, another complication.
“I remember different times when you hear promising news,” Pete Castelli said. “Her and I would high-five, or we’d feel that this would be the defining moment. It would finally be over and we were going to finally start to move forward.
“That just didn’t seem to ever come.”
Infection spread throughout her leg. Doctors couldn’t find the solution, and finally decided to amputate.
Pete wouldn’t be convinced so quickly. He went to Google, desperate for options he hoped could save his daughter’s leg. He called doctors at Columbia and Johns Hopkins before coming across a “limb preservation center” at Georgetown.
“Just the phrase itself,” he said, “seemed to give me hope.”
Doctors there determined the same fate. They amputated in two stages across 30 days so the infection wouldn’t follow their work. On Nov. 4, 2009, they completed the amputation.
“It was disbelief, you know?” Pete said. “How did we get here? From just a broken leg?”
This moment was two years in the making. The moment Denise Castelli would be able to walk freely again.
She was nervous to receive her prosthetic leg — yet anxious. She was certain some sort of normalcy would return to her life — yet all the details seemed so uncertain.
What is it going to feel like? What if I fall? Is walking really going to be walking?
When she got to Metro Brace and Limb in the Bronx, she bypassed someone who offered to take her coat. Castelli’s prosthetist, Jorge Gonzalez, put a walker near her chair for her to hold onto when she was able to stand up. He set up parallel bars in the hallway for her to hold onto while walking.
Castelli put on her prosthetic leg and let go of the walker. She walked into the hallway, confident enough to not use the parallel bars.
“It was … I’m going to cry,” Castelli said, recalling the day in early March 2010. “I don’t know. It was the moment I felt like … the moment I knew I was really going to be okay. I could do anything now. It was an incredible feeling.
“When you start walking when you’re a baby, you don’t remember. I’m sure your parents remember, but you don’t remember the first time you got up and took steps. For me, I really get to remember my second first time learning how to walk.”
For Castelli, the four months between her amputation and getting her prosthetic leg was the most frustrating period. That day, she walked again. Two months later, she ran at the CAF clinic in New York.
Soon, she started playing sports again. She tried softball again last summer, but that was ambitious. In the winter, she played volleyball in a West Milford parks and recreation league. This year, her confidence built to try again at softball.
“I feel like I am exactly where I was before I was amputated,” Castelli said. “Nothing has been stopping me. It’s a really cool feeling.”
A NERVOUS TRYOUT
As Castelli ran along the net during her tryout, she concentrated hard. She was determined to prove she could perform as well as anyone else trying out.
“I feel like when someone with one leg falls, everyone gasps and looks,” Castelli said. “I was just nervous. I did not want to fall. That was what I kept telling myself.”
Her tryout came after Korff of the USTA reached out to local organizations including the CAF, looking for a below-the-knee amputee young woman between 20 and 25. And he wanted one that could throw.
Nancy Reynolds, the CAF’s director of development, had the perfect candidate. In early June, she sent an e-mail to Denise, who immediately accepted.
She didn’t prepare much. The night before her tryout, she went out and threw a tennis ball to get used to its weight. As she admits, the first couple throws of her tryout were “pitiful.”
She moved past the nerves soon. And she impressed. She retrieved one ball at the net before spinning 360 degrees to chase another.
She did everything but fall.
“When I was talking to one of my colleagues at the USTA,” Korff said, “I said, ‘Look. She’s going to end up working the finals on the stadium court.’ She was amazing.”
NEVER LOSING HOPE
There was a time, Castelli admits, when the thought crossed her mind. She was unsure if she’d ever walk again.
“When someone tells you they’re going to amputate your leg, you can’t really imagine,” she said. “Like, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine. I’ll be walking again.’ No. It takes time to set in.
“I don’t know if I ever lost hope completely, but I definitely was unsure for a little bit.”
Running was the same. Castelli recently applied for and was approved for a grant for a running leg from the CAF.
In her application, she wrote of her time at the clinic last June. Going in, she was skeptical. But she listened carefully to instructor Bob Gailey’s speech and tried to mimic the technique he showed the athletes.
“As soon as he allowed us to break out and fully sprint, I took off,” she wrote in the application. “I couldn’t believe I actually ran. I couldn’t believe I didn’t fall. I couldn’t believe how great it felt to feel wind brush against my face as I glided on the turf.
“From that point, I was determined. I left the workshop that day with something I thought I had lost forever: confidence.”
Brett LoGiurato: firstname.lastname@example.org
We all at the DOUGLAS BADER FOUNDATION salute your courage, Denise, and wish you the very best of luck in your quest to be chosen as a ball girl at the U.S. Open. We’re sure you’ll succeed and know that Sir Douglas would have admired your spirit and would be behind you all the way.Tags: amputate, amputation, Chelsea Piers, Denise Castelli, Douglas Bader, Morristown Memorial Hospital, prosthetic, prosthetist, United States Tennis Association