Within five minutes of her first-ever visit to Rogers Cup presented by National Bank, Monique Begy saw Rafael Nadal cruise by on a golf cart, being taken to his next practice – a fine introduction to live tennis for any fan.
She spent three or four days at the tournament, taking in lots of tennis and wandering the grounds. A vibrant and happy teenager, she looked just like any other regular tennis fan in attendance out enjoying the summer.
But this was not a regular visit for Monique. The fact that she had walked through the Aviva Centre gates on her own – no wheelchair, no cane, and no walker – was an absolutely remarkable achievement. Actually, the fact that she was even still alive and breathing was nothing short of a miracle.
That was in August 2010. Just 13 months earlier, Monique was not yet a tennis fan. She was an elite swimmer, with a realistic view set on the Olympic Games. Just days after turning 16 years old, she was in Montreal to compete at the national championships. Already at the pool and all set for race day, she began to feel nauseous and was overcome with a headache and dizziness.
Somehow, nine hours later, she emerged from emergency brain surgery to stop a bleed that had formed in her brain. As a result, Monique came out of the operation without her ability to see, walk, talk, and at first, understand what was really happening.
“This was a total emergency procedure, they didn’t have any idea what was causing the bleed or what exactly had happened,” she said. “It was a high trauma, high-stress situation.”
Monique was diagnosed with a brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a tangle of poorly formed blood vessels which therefore can rupture and bleed more often. There is no known cause of AVMs and they are thought to be formed in utero. While they can occur anywhere in the body, the brain just happens to be the most dangerous, producing symptoms and deficits like a stroke. Some people go their whole lives without knowing they have one.
So, it’s rare to be born with an AVM. It’s rare to be born with one in the brain – this occurs in less than 1 per cent of the population. It’s rare that an AVM will rupture. And once that happens, it’s rare to survive and with minimal side effects. She defied the odds on all accounts.
“I really felt we’d witnessed a miracle,” said her mother, Jane Begy. “And the medical community certainly supported this. This is not the regular outcome. When this happens, you are meant to be here and do really special things with your life.”
Her dad Peter was by her side almost immediately, as he had been working in Toronto and flew out right away. Jane was back home in Kitchener with family, fielding calls and trying to understand what was going on.
“I really had no awareness of how critical this was, until I got a call from the neurological hospital. ‘Is this Monique’s mom? Are you sitting down? Please sit down. Are you alone, please make sure you’re not alone. Monique is in critical condition and we need to perform emergency surgery.’”
With Monique’s 12-year-old brother Sean in the care of family members, Jane was able to get to the hospital within the next couple days and begin a new life where she says “you don’t look back, you don’t look forward, you just stay here in the now.”
Following the AVM, Monique’s goals changed from winning gold in the pool to day-by-day moving forward and improving. From being able to write her name to being able to do up the clasp on her necklace, and eventually, being able to walk.
“One thing I remember vividly was sitting in the physio room, it was within a week of this happening, as they get them up and moving so fast,” said Jane. “And Monique’s in a wheelchair and they have an inflatable beach ball that they’re throwing at her at a distance of a couple metres seeing if she can catch it. And the week before she’s competing at the national swim championships. Certain things you just go, what just happened?”
In fact, Monique’s background as a high performance swimmer – she trained 10 times a week and was competing in more and more international competitions – had a lot to do with her survival.
“Because of all my training, I had lots of endurance and stamina and I was able to be in a nine-hour trauma surgery and live to tell the tale,” Monique said. “Swimming has been a huge part of my life and who I am today, just in terms of dedication and determination, I carried that with me through my recovery and I still do, and I still credit swimming with saving my life.”
After almost three weeks, she was transferred to London to be closer to home. Another 10-hour surgery followed there to remove the malformation from her brain. She came out of this surgery better off than the first, but still had to relearn how to walk and dealt with lots of pain and headaches.
It was in the hospital, first in Montreal then in London, that she began listening to tennis. First, there was not much else to do in her room but watch TV. It was the summer, which meant lots of tennis was televised. She was already inclined to enjoy sports. And, the voice of the commentators (Brad Gilbert is her favourite) offered easy sounds for her to process. So, she first became familiar with the rules of the game and the players via listening.
Once her eyesight returned soon after and she was able to see the sport for the first time, Monique describes it as putting pieces of a puzzle together.
“When I regained my sight I was able to watch and understand more deeply,” she said, also joking that before this the only tennis she had ever been involved in was Wii tennis. “It was just incredible to see how fast and how hard they do actually hit and the kind of angles and the shots they make. I started to get a bit more sense for the game and I loved it.”
And it was there, in the hospital room in London, that she watched the 2009 Rogers Cup and decided the following year she would attend the tournament – and walk in on her own two feet.
Fast forward to 2010 and that first visit: “It was an absolute dream come true. I had only been a fan for a year, but when I left the hospital in London, I was still using a walker and a wheelchair and I said I’m going to walk out those doors on my own with no help and then I’m going to walk into Rogers Cup with no help, on my own. And that’s just what I did. I kept having a flashback to when I said that in the middle of August the year before when I walked into the stadium.”
Jane remembers it as being a great moment of triumph.
“It was huge. It was a very overwhelming feeling. We both walked in and just kind of exhaled. It was just really overwhelming but it was wonderful. That she was walking and talking and she had come so far.”
Since then, she has come to Rogers Cup every single year – but as a volunteer. In 2011, she and her mom volunteered in Montreal, combining the trip with registering Monique for her courses at McGill University. The next year, they joined the Pass Court and Outside Courts (PCOC) committee in Toronto where they’ve been ever since. Jane, who beforehand says she couldn’t have named five tennis players, is now a captain on the committee, taking a leadership role.
“The volunteer experience is absolutely incredible,” Monique says. “The team is like a big family, and everyone is so kind and so compassionate. It’s just a really great group of people to work with. I just love helping people and working with people so I really like the interaction with the other fans and answering questions, and seeing a smiling face.”
With a positive outlook on life, Monique handled her new situation with both an utmost grace and unrelenting fight. And throughout her whole recovery, tennis has been there for her.
“I think tennis has almost been like a beacon,” she says. “When I had to stop swimming because of this, I didn’t have an outlet and it was really hard to reconcile the idea that I wasn’t going to be able to swim at the same level again. It was nice to have an outlet where I could just sit back and watch and get absorbed into the tennis world, and be a part of that and learn a new sport and be involved in something new.”
Her favourite player is Juan Martin Del Potro, who she has liked since all she could do was listen to the sounds of grunting, squeaking shoes, and balls being crushed cross-court. Her first foray into tennis just so happened mere weeks before Del Potro won the US Open. As he faltered with injuries soon after, her kinship with him only grew.
“That’s another thing that drew me to Del Potro as a player too. After the US Open is when his wrist started to get bad and he had to have surgery. And not to the same level, but I felt like I could relate as a high-level athlete that wasn’t able to do what they loved.”
Today, Monique is 23 years old. She just graduated from McGill with a degree in geography. Throughout her time at McGill, she volunteered every single week at the neurological hospital that saved her life. She still endures some deficits from the AVM, most notably a lack of strength on the left side of her body, but to see her one would have no idea of everything she has gone through, and just how well she has come out on the other side.
She tells her story with strength, positivity, resilience, and a remarkable sense of calm and self-assurance. While her journey is not yet over, she is on the other side of recovery with a very bright future ahead.
“She’s extremely confident, we’ve seen her confidence return,” says Jane, describing Monique the person today. “She is highly compassionate, she always puts other people first. And she just inspires me every single day and we’re so proud of her. When you look at the journey, how can you not be?”
She went on a trip to Europe last month and is starting a full-time job in downtown Toronto in August. And this week, during Rogers Cup, she will be on hand for her sixth stint as volunteer.
For anyone who happens to run into Monique around the grounds wearing her aqua blue volunteer uniform, know that all she is hoping for is to be a positive presence in your visit, help you have an amazing time, and put a smile on your face.