Learning To Run With Mike Bellis

June 2014 – The first time I met Mike Bellis was a few years ago at a pb tournament at Pearkes Rec Centre in Victoria. He is a tall and strong looking fellow. Mike has a presence. With his physique and short hair he reminded me of the actor Steven Seagal…but with a nice attitude. Mike Bellis was someone you noticed.

I talked with him before he was due to go on the court. Mike was with a group of players that had come down to Victoria from up island. Most of them were good players and they won most of the A level matches. Mike Bellis did well in his games in spite of having a somewhat limited mobility. However, although he shuffled around the court, Mike was deadly with his shots when he got to the ball. I wondered at the time how good he would be when he recovered from what I thought was a twisted ankle or some other small problem. I continued to run into Mike at other pb events. He became better each time I saw him. Each year he continued to improve his play and his movement on the court. 

The picture below is from the top singles play event at last year’s Pearkes tourney. Mike won gold, Joe Wong on his left took silver and Ryner Wilson on his right won bronze.

Mike competes with top players on Vancouver Island and all over B.C. He is a popular and respected player. He is a good sport and a supportive teammate….People like Mike. He and his wife Kristi Bellis live in the lovely rural town of Nanoose. They live a life surrounded by loving and supportive friends. Mike has a lot to be happy about, however he wasn’t always as you see him now. Mike Bellis, like all of us, has more than one side. There is another scene… It is a picture of light that is contrasted by deep shadows. Some of the colours are harsh and abstract…You can only understand the meaning of the image until you look past the bright foreground at the dark background. In this profile edition I will attempt to paint an accurate portrait of Mike Bellis.

Growing up – If you drive about 23 miles west of Victoria you come to the town of Sooke. That seems pretty close to Victoria, but when you get there it’s a world apart…There’s big trees, lakes, clean rivers, steep hills, windy beaches and freedom. It’s a good place to be a boy. Mike Bellis grew up there in the 70’s, 80’s and early 1990’s. He and his brother Norman Bellis were active kids who liked competing together in team sports like hockey and baseball. The boy’s parents, John and Carol Bellis, enjoyed seeing their sons having fun and becoming healthy and athletic. Mike especially had a natural talent at any game he participated in. However, Mike didn’t have a passion for any one particular sport. That is, until he was in his late teens….That’s when Mike Bellis fell in love.

Broomhill Country Club (currently named DeMamiel Creek Golf Course) is the only place to hit a golf ball  in Sooke. That’s where 17 year old Mike Bellis found his passion in life. He was addicted to the game from his first iron shot. Mike liked golf so much that he got a job at this course. That way he would be close to the action and he wouldn’t have to pay green fees. Eventually Mike learned everything about grounds maintenance and course management. He also became a talented player – although his skill wasn’t challenged enough at his place of employment. Broomhill was only an executive par 3 course. Mike was ready for a change. When the opportunity came up Mike Bellis made a move. It would be quite an adventure…His new job would be at an unusual and unexpected place for a golf course.

Late 1990’s – 2005 Stuart Island is thirty-two miles north and east of Campbell River. It is a wild and beautiful location. An American billionaire built a lovely home, private airstrip and fishing lodge on the Isalnd…Naturally, his dream getaway would not be complete without a private golf course for he and his friends…Mike Bellis was hired to be the golf pro at the wealthy American’s 9 holer! Mike enjoyed his new job. It was a good place to work and an interesting area for Mike to explore on his time off. His life was enriched further when he met someone who was staying at Stuart Island….a lovely red headed lady with a warm and friendly manner. Her name was Kristi. Their attraction for each other was strong…. Mike and Kristi fell in love and were married that same year they met. The couple had fun together and liked their island home. It was 2004…Mike Bellis had only one year to enjoy his sunny life with his Kristi. One year later the mood had changed. In one brief moment the bright colours of Mike’s world were dulled.

Summer was the best time to be out on the island. Mike’s employer on Stuart Island was having a family reunion and Bellis was showing one of the guest some tips on driving for distance. It was a good day to be out on the green grass…a fine day until…Mike swung and felt a sharp pain in his lower back. That was a shock to him, but what was more disconcerting to Mike was that something was wrong with his lower body…His legs were numb. It was August 14th, 2005 and Mike Bellis had taken his last golf swing…

Two years later – A tall athletic man left the medical office in a daze. Mike tried to hide his distress from his wife…He didn’t want to let Kristi know how he felt…Mike Bellis had been working for the last twenty four months on his recovery from his back injury. Two years previously he had been flown down from Stuart Island to Vic General Hospital. He had been operated on for a L3, L4 discectomy…That was a fairly common injury, but there was more…In Mike’s case the disc injury had compressed and damaged a bundle of nerves at the base of his spine. Cauda equina syndrome was a rare complication. The doctors had done their best to repair the damage, but they were only partially successful. Mike Bellis was left with some serious challenges…sciatic pain, lack of feeling in his legs, difficulty walking and other neurological and physical problems. They had told Mike that he would need time and physiotherapy to impove his disability. The doctors and nurses had told him to follow their guidance. Mike could expect some relief from his symptoms over a twenty four month period. At first Mike was optimistic in the recovery plan…He had always healed from sports injuries in his youth. Mike Bellis was confident in the strength of his mind and body. He worked harder than he ever had in his life. Then, two years after his initial injury Mike had met with his doctor. He had diligently followed the professional advice of the doctors and nurses but his symptoms were not much better. Mike Bellis wanted to know what to expect going forward and his doctor had told him the unfortunate news….”do not expect any additional recovery.” The implications of the words of the physician kept going through Mike’s head as he left the medical building….no more recovery….permanently disabled…forever….As painful as his original problem had been, the doctor had caused another deeper injury to his patient. ”Do not expect any additional recovery”…the words had broken Mike’s spirit. Mike Bellis was heartbroken.

The next five years – After the visit to the doctor there was a transition…It was as if Mike had moved into a different reality…as if he had lost his identity. The days and nights became a blur. Sometimes the man saw a strange image in the glass. It wasn’t something he could talk about. The man had secrets…Since the life changing event had occurred to him, he wasn’t the same…However he was good in a different area. Previously he had been a top rate golfer. The stranger had new skills. He was not proud of himself. He was working on becoming an alcoholic and abuser of prescription drugs. If he happened to see himself in a mirror, the man didn’t recognize the stranger in the glass…The face he saw was pale and puffy. The stranger had given up his old life of health and fitness. His weight ballooned to 360 pounds. He gave into any craving. He had no ambition. At times he thought of giving up totally…of finding somewhere to be alone. A place where he could die. To hide his dependencies, the stranger had developed an acting talent. His loved ones had no idea of the severity of his addictions. He was lying to everyone. This man was desperately unhappy. 

This stranger had been lying to others but fortunately he could not fool his former self…One day he found the strength to say to the stranger, ”You are not me.” Somehow that worked…The phantom was gone and a new man took his place. He had taken a step into the light. The true Mike Bellis was back…Mike had come clean with himself, but he needed to do more. His marriage was troubled. There was only one thing to do…he went to his wife and told her the truth about his addictions. She has a generous spirit…She was generous in her support. Kristi would help her man to return from the land of darkness and doubt.

April 24th, 2012 – April 29th, 2017…I went to the gym at Colquitz School in Victoria last month to take some pictures and to meet with one of the instructors. This was the site of the VRPA pickleball clinic and there was an enthusiastic group of about 24 pickle people in attendance. Ken Holman from Chemanius was leading the group and he was being assisted by a big guy from Nanoose. Ken Holman had introduced Mike Bellis to the students as ”the best player on Vancouver Island”. Mike told me that description of him may be a bit of a stretch, but I think he deserves that rating. I smile when I think of what he is able to do with a pickleball and a paddle. I watched the proceeding for awhile then my wife Pam and I went for coffee. I came back at noon and to do my interview. Mike’s parents, were there at the gym. John and Carol Bellis had been proudly watching their son on the court. Mike treasures their support. When we started the interview, Mike Bellis told me that he had celebrated an important date a few days previously. For Mike, April 24th marked five years of being clean and sober. Mike wouldn’t have been successful in this journey without  the loving support of his parents and his wife Kristi, but Mike also gives a lot of credit to a certain activity he discovered about 4 and a half years ago:-)

A few years after Mike’s golf injury, he had moved to Nanoose. Stuart Island had lost it’s appeal to Mike and Kristi. Mike’s wife wanted to move back to her home town…familiar ground. The location may have been a fortunate move for Mike Bellis. Nanoose has a nice place to excerise – Fairwinds Rec Center. Mike went there one day intending to do a workout. His therapist had advised Mike Bellis to do something physical every day to keep a positive frame of mind. As Mike entered the gym, a guy came up to him and said, ”Hey, we need a fourth for pickleball.” Mike Bellis had never played. He thought the pickle name sounded funny but he decided to give it a try. Mike remembered a mantra that he was using to get through each day, ”show up and suit up, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come back.” Something significant happened that day…Although he was overweight and awkward in his movements, any of his feelings of insecurity went away as soon as Mike hit his first shot on the pickleball court. He loved the game…He still had a long way to go but pickleball would be an important part of Mike’s rehab program. He was sick and tired of losing…Mike Bellis was ready to win. The pickleball players that he got to know like Ryner Wilson and Dennis Furman became friends and a positive influence in Mike’s goals. Another player who Mike got to know was someone who could relate to the challenges that Mike was going through. He was a man who had conquered his own demons in his past. Ronnie Pitcher became a mentor and playing partner. Mike cherishes his friendship with Ronnie.

As I was listening to Mike talk about our sport and the thousands of hours he has spent with his pals doing practice drills, I could see that a competitive spark has been ignited in Mike….Mike Bellis has showed up and suited up…He had ignored his pains and frustrations and got into doing his best at playing our funny game. In pickleball, Mike Bellis has found the missing ingredient for his life’s journey. I asked him who he looks up to in the the pickleball world and Mike Bellis answered with two names…Marco Jankowiak from Langley is a top 5.0 player that Mike loves to duel with at pb events. Wes Gabrielsen from McMinnville, Oregon is one of the the top players in the world. Mike considers Wes to be a great pb ambassador. I think Mike has chosen two good role models.

As for me…I have interviewed a lot of players and heard a lot of pb tales. If I ever start to feel sorry for myself when I have some difficulty in my life I will remember to keep my small problems in perspective….First you learn to crawl, then you learn to walk…as the story goes, there ain’t no short cuts in the plan. You have to learn and relearn those lessons before you are ready for what’s next. I learned the last part from Mike Bellis…how to run. 

Photo Album

Mike getting in game shape.

At the VRPA Clinic – Ken Holman, Claudia McLean, Nancy Stern, Mike Bellis.

Mike with his parents – John and Carol Bellis.

Mike and I

Mike enjoys being out on his boat. His business is Haida Gold Ocean Adventures.  haidagold.ca

Mike and Kristi on top of Notch Hill with Nanoose in the background.

You can often see Mike playing at Fairwinds Fitness Centre. Advanced play is Monday 5pm – 8:30pm, Thursday 4pm – 7:30pm, and Saturday 12:30pm – 1:30pm. $6.50 drop-in fee.

That’s all for this edition but I am already working on some other player profiles. I hope everyone is getting their own projects done. I’m in a condo, but for those of you in houses…set some priorities. Don’t let the lawn cutting take up too much of your time…We need you out on the pickleball courts…

Thanks for the game,

DJ Baker.

Messages – douglas.baker50@gmail.com

Archives – www.challengecourt.net

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