Inspiration behind home plate

Disability can't stop athlete from lifting her team

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marty Dobrow
Globe Correspondent / April 30, 2008

CHICOPEE - The first pitch of the fifth inning, a fastball for a called strike, sent forth a huge puff of dirt from the glove of Elms College sophomore catcher Gina Gilday.

The Blazers were already way ahead, 16-1, over Johnson State, in the first game of a doubleheader last Saturday.

"All right, Gina!" called out one player as Gilday fired the ball back to pitcher Destinee Meeker.

The next pitch was fouled to the backstop, and Gilday scooted after it, propelling herself using her right palm and her glove, while the legs of her black sweat pants trailed behind her. She snapped another sharp throw back to the pitcher and called out, "Way to go, Destinee!"

For Gilday, a sophomore catcher from nearby Hampden who was born without legs, this was only her third varsity appearance in two seasons (she would make a fourth in the second game of the doubleheader). Though her playing time has been limited, she is an integral part of a team that enters today's North Atlantic Conference playoffs with a 19-14 record.

Gilday raps ground balls to infielders at practice, warms up pitchers in the bullpen, and charts almost every pitch of the season from the bench. Most important, she provides a relentlessly upbeat presence that ensures the team's spirit is never south of boisterous.

"You'll always hear her voice from the bench," said starting catcher Tiffany Williams. "She's always energetic, excited to be here."

Her comfort with herself was crafted in nearby Hampden, where she grew up as the youngest of four children of Rick and Eda Gilday. The other three, a girl and two boys, were all able-bodied and active, destined to become high school varsity athletes in sports such as softball, volleyball, baseball, football, and hockey.

When Eda was pregnant with Gina, she told her husband that this child felt different. She refused to do an ultrasound even when her doctor suggested it, figuring both she and Rick were far past the point of shock. After all, she was a nurse at Baystate Medical Center, and he had served in Vietnam. There was nothing that ultrasound could show that would have changed their minds anyway.

Still, when Gina was delivered with bilateral lower limb deficiency, a significant hand anomaly, and cardiac arrhythmia, Eda was stunned. At the time, she considered it "the darkest day of my life."

The family's pediatrician, Leif Nordstrom, soon examined Gina and told the Gildays that in all the most important respects, they had a healthy girl. The heart had corrected itself. The fused fingers on her left hand could be corrected by surgery. He then offered Eda and Rick a challenge they would never forget: "Walk with Gina as if she is your shining star. If you do that, others will look at her the same way."

The family never wasted much time on the why. Rick still believes that his exposure to Agent Orange may have played a role. Genetic tests offered no clear evidence. Eda says simply that if you roll out a string of pearls, one of them might have a crack.

Determined to participate

The Gildays' backyard was a bustling neighborhood hangout where the sporting activity never stopped. From a young age, Gina wanted in, and siblings Candace, Ricky, and T.J. were happy to oblige, seldom cutting her slack. She learned to throw. She learned to hit. In backyard hockey games, she played goalie and developed quick reflexes.

No pity parties were allowed. Eda collected a folder of inspirational stories, and whenever she sensed Gina faltering, she would pull one out and tell her how there were two roads she could go down: "You could choose to feel sorry for yourself, or you could do like all these people have done."

The folder rarely had to come out. Gina's natural vivaciousness was infectious. Whether she was moving through the world on her latest prosthetics ("my legs"), tooling around on her Quickie wheelchair, or "scooting" on her palms, she made it a habit to greet people's stares with a smile and an upbeat, "How are you?" She came to see her disability as a path to connection.

Having watched her siblings compete in sports, Gina was determined to play on a team. She started with T-ball in second grade on a team her father helped coach. Back then she was playing with her prosthetics, but by fourth grade she decided to ditch them for softball.

"They were kind of holding me back more than helping me," she explained. "I would get unbalanced sometimes."

Her position was a natural.

"It made more sense for me to be a catcher," she said with a laugh. "I was the right height for it. I didn't have to squat or anything."

She continued to play in middle school, where she was given one special rule. After she hit the ball and placed the bat down, a pinch runner was allowed to take off for first base.

Her family was proud. Gina had come so far. For team sports, they figured, that was the end of the line.

But one day in the summer before her freshman year at Minnechaug Regional High School, she came into the kitchen and announced to her mother that she wanted to play. Her mother's first reaction was a mixture of shock and maternal protectiveness; after all, she had seen a lot of high school sports in the last few years. This was serious ball. There wouldn't be any special allowances. Catcher was the most dangerous position. But as she turned around, she heard a voice well up inside her: "I'm not going to be the one to tell her she can't."

'Amazing sense of self'

And so it came to pass that Gina Gilday played for four years for the Minnechaug Regional Falcons, three on the junior varsity, one on the varsity. That was a pretty serious extracurricular involvement around the edges of being class president.

She held her own. Softball's reentry rule allowed her to be pinch run for once if she got on base - which she often did by drawing a walk and occasionally by getting a hit. Defensively, she was a dynamo. In one game, she turned a dazzling double play, tagging a sliding runner, then firing the ball to third just ahead of another.

Generally, opponents dealt with her respectfully, though there were some exceptions. Once, during her sophomore year, she heard an opposing coach scoff when she came to the plate: "How the hell do you expect my pitchers to pitch to that?"

Though her teammates were outraged, Gina just let it roll off her back. "You pick your battles," she explained. "Just ignorant people - what can you do? I feel bad for people like that. They're missing out on a lot."

She walked at her graduation to thunderous applause, then set her sights on college. Elms, a bucolic Division 3 school in nearby Chicopee, seemed the perfect fit. She could pursue a double major in Education and English, as her goal was to become a high school teacher. The school was close to home and to Shriners Hospital in Springfield. And then, of course, there was softball.

Cheryl Condon recalled her first meeting with a young lady with dark hair, freckles, and an engaging smile. "Coach, I'm so interested in being a part of this team," Gina said.

Condon already had coached at Elms for two decades. She had dealt with all manner of athletes, and had come to believe that as much as good recruiting and good skill development, success was achieved through team-building and chemistry. In Gina Gilday, she had struck gold.

"She brought to us a whole other dimension of what it is to be a student-athlete in college," said Condon. "She's got this amazing smile, this amazing sense of self." On the field, Condon cites her "very strong arm" and "great tracking skills behind the plate." Though Gina has only been used defensively in games, Condon has not ruled out allowing her to bat at some point.

Her Elms teammates have been absorbed into Gina's world. Third baseman Allyson Graffum says she often goes out with Gina and rails about people staring at her, only to see her friend smiling and introducing herself.

"She understands that people are not used to it, and don't see it every day," said Graffum. "It's amazing to me how comfortable she is."

Gina says flatly that she wouldn't even want legs, that her experience without them has made her a better person and given her a deeper life experience. She is quick to deflect any credit.

"My friends have been amazing," she said. "My family has been amazing. All my coaches have been so good about allowing me to set my own standards, instead of telling me what I can and cannot do."

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