Discoveries

The Tennis Player: Bernie LeSage

Boomer Is Back

Bernie LeSage

Photo by Austin Hargrave

Self-taught tennis player Bernie LeSage, who has made a comeback on the national tournament circuit despite Parkinson's disease, feels best about his game when he hits a "crisp shot down the line." But if he could relive the day he played world champion Jimmy Connors, "I'd hit a few more put-away volleys," he says.

They were matched in the 1971 NCAA championship at the University of Notre Dame when Connors was still a relative unknown. LeSage, now 68, was a senior at Notre Dame and the varsity team's captain and star. The thundering echo of his serve earned him the nickname "Boomer."

Connors was a UCLA freshman who would become one of the best tennis players in history. He won against LeSage, 6–1 and 6–2, and went on to take the NCAA singles title and lead UCLA to the national championship.

"I wasn't happy with my performance at the time, but now winning a few games against Connors seems okay," says LeSage, who has played competitive tennis off and on since college.

Returning to tournament play after his Parkinson's diagnosis seven years ago required patience. He was having difficulty with his toss when serving. Then he began to experience tremors, weakness, and trouble walking.

"I had to learn to play tennis all over again," he says.

"There were lots of misses," his wife, Joan, adds. "It was painful to watch."

Medication and rigorous daily training eased LeSage's symptoms and improved his game. He battles fatigue but doesn't give in to it — he hits tennis balls instead of napping. In 2016, Boomer was ranked 19th in Southern California and 85th nationally among players 65 and older. He remains competitive but has relaxed his attitude toward winning since retiring from a long career as a business litigator. On the tennis court, "There are people I used to beat easily who I can't beat anymore, but that doesn't stop me from making a fool of myself," he says. "Having a good match and hitting the ball where I want it are more important to me than winning."

He has good days and bad ones, just as he has good matches and bad ones. "I only remember the good ones," he says.

Read on to see how these men and women are redefining what it means to live with Parkinson’s by practicing and excelling at the sports they love.