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Saturday, Jun. 23, 2018
Holly Mousseau: Coaching in the face of Epilepsy
by Randy Pascal

There will come a time when GymZone Gymnastics coach Holly Mousseau will look an athlete in the eye, challenging him or her to overcome their fear, to step outside of the comfort zone they typically maintain.

It’s not as though coach Mousseau is unable to relate.

Born in Sault Ste Marie, the now 30 year-old young lady enjoyed years of involvement as a gymnast, tackling both a coaching and administrative role at the age of nineteen with the SSM Gym Club. Along with a fellow coach, she introduced a power tumbling component to the program offering in her hometown.

Strong connections, within the sport, would soon ensue. “I used to go to tumbling competitions, as a young coach, so Denis Vachon and I would run into each other,” she recalled. “I would always try and learn from him. I would take videos of my athletes, emailing them to him, with questions.”

One thing led to another. “We became very comfortable with one another, so they actually offered me a job in Burlington, working with Denis,” Mousseau continued. “I got to mentor under him, basically, for two years.”

“He is amazing. We would walk into a gym, and he makes you want to be there. He finds the little spark in everybody. With Denis, it’s very much about letting everybody be the star that they can be. I would have stayed there, forever.”

It was the Easter long weekend, and Mousseau was now in her mid-twenties. She had returned home, to Sault Ste Marie, to enjoy valuable time with her family. “I went to bed one day a perfectly healthy person, and I woke up the next day in a hospital,” she explained. “I thought my life was over.”

Mousseau was diagnosed with “adult onset epilepsy”. Epilepsy is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures. The source of the seizures occurs in the human brain, with electrical events within the brain causing the seizures.

“They told me that my epilepsy was because of stress and lack of sleep,” said Mousseau. “Those are my triggers.” Understandably, the news hit her like a ton of bricks. “I was really angry,” she said. “How could this happen to me in the middle of my career.”

“Coaching under Denis was one of the biggest opportunities that anyone could have. It was a matter of reaching acceptance first.” That process, understanding the scope of her illness and how best to treat it, would monopolize the better part of the next two years for Mousseau.

Initially, very briefly, she contemplated remaining in Burlington. “I stayed there for a while, but I was seizuring all the time, I lost my license, and I didn’t find it fair to my athletes, so I moved back home.”

“I was scared, and not just scared for me, but scared for my athletes.” Her return to the workforce would not come via the world of gymnastics. Rather, Mousseau took a very pragmatic approach in reaching a long-term goal.

“I went back to working, but instead of jumping back into coaching, I went to work in a call centre,” she stated. “I did this because it was one of the most stressful situations I could put myself in. I figured if I could handle a call centre job, for about a year, then coaching would be a breeze.”

The game plan worked to perfection. “I got myself healthy, first of all, and started slowly working with the kids again,” said Mousseau. When she says that she is “healthy”, that is not to suggest she is free from the grips of epilepsy.

“It’s the same as being an athlete, because it’s all about taking care of yourself first, before you think of anything else. Every morning, I have to wake up and remember to take my pills. If I’m feeling a little off that day, then I just let the people here know.” Thankfully, there have been only two occasions, over the course of the past year, where Mousseau has thought better than coming in to work at the GymZone.

Acceptance gave way, over time, to a deeply rooted realization that provided the young coach a whole new prism through which to view the world. “I just can’t let myself forget than I’m epileptic, but I can’t let epilepsy hold me back, and not be able to do anything in life,” she said, a powerful statement indeed.

From the depth of anger, despair, frustration and self-pity would emerge a changed woman, one that surpasses, in her opinion, the one that existed before that fateful Easter weekend. “I’m definitely a better coach, a better person, because of it,” said Mousseau.

“It’s all the little things that you appreciate now - the way the kids say thank you to you, the way they give you a hug on the way out. You just never know what tomorrow may bring.” With a year in Sudbury under her belt, Mousseau is set to begin the process of moving forward, once again, with her coaching aspirations.

She worked this past year with recreational women’s artistic and tumbling programs, but also offered a 12-week pre-competitive power tumbling session in the spring. Her new love has come from combining her love of tumbling, with the introduction of a cheerleading session. Not cheerleading, as in waving pompoms, but rather that physically demanding workout that accompanies countless NCAA varsity sporting events.

“I just try and make sure that my kids learn something every day, and that they’re proud that they have learned something every day.” Holly Mousseau can attest – each and every day is a special gift indeed.

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