An Ohio man is not expected to walk or speak strengthened by exercise programs
When Jeremy Gaia was a junior at West Geauga High School, he decided he wanted to try for the golf team.
Gaia has been mentally challenged since birth, suffers from chronic kidney disease and is constantly seeing things in motion due to a vision problem.
But the coach gave him a chance to achieve his dream.
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After nine holes, Gaia was physically exhausted and unable to finish the game. But his first swing of the day at Legend Lake Golf Club in Chardon showed the mental toughness and competitiveness of the now 30-year-old, who wasn’t expected to walk or talk as a newborn.
“I got a message from the coach,” his mother recalled during a June 21 interview with Paulette Firestone Country Club. “‘We’re glad he tried it.’
“He hits his first shot with the heel of the racquet and the ball goes about 15 feet to the right. Jeremy serves again and hits the ball 150 yards straight down the fairway. It didn’t bother him, he just tried again.’”
Golf runs deep in the Gaia family. Jeremy’s father, Larry, had taught his two older children to play, beginning at age 5, the same age Larry’s father introduced him to the game. Larry stuck to tradition, presented Jeremy with the stripped-down clubs, and worked with him on the backyard and driving range for five years. At the age of 10, Jeremy started taking classes.
“He has vision problems; his eyes dart around. The fact that he can actually play golf is amazing,” Paulette said. “Larry said, ‘I’ll just teach him and see if he takes it,’ and he took it. The other two don’t play anymore. It’s a really good bond – father, son on the golf course.
“There are no distractions. You don’t have your phone; You don’t have your iPad or TV close by. Just you and your father.”
A Chesterland native, Jeremy had places where he was welcomed. Paulette’s two brothers worked full-time on golf courses – one at Grantwood in Solon, the other at St Denis in Chardon – until they retired. Her late brother-in-law owned St. Denis.
Jeremy became an active participant strengthen sports, one of the organizations sponsored by the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship that Major Tournament of PGA Tour Champions set for July 7th to 10th Firestone Country Club.
Empower offers 45 team sports at locations in Northeast Ohio. Sessions take place one evening per week for seven to ten weeks and last 60 to 90 minutes. Empower brings in high school, corporate, and volunteer groups and blends the teams. Golf was introduced around 2018, which Jeremy added to his schedule, which already included basketball, softball, pickleball, lacrosse, soccer, CrossFit, and other fitness classes.
Empower Sports Executive Director Tom Heines stated that if Jeremy played basketball at the Solon Community Center, he could play with the Chagrin Falls girls team, the West Geauga boys, Hiram College or a group of Benesh attorneys in back-to-back weeks .
Heines said the program helps participants develop socially and emotionally, and helps volunteers to accept and interact with people with differences to “see them as people worthy of their time, dignity and friendship.”
Heines has known Jeremy for several years and said he was a “special guy to me” because they both attended West Geauga High School.
Heines mentioned Jeremy’s competitive nature, which he also displays at Special Olympics events, and praised Jeremy’s golf skills.
“He’s a pretty good golfer and I’m a bad golfer. Jeremy should probably coach me, to be honest,” Heines said in a June 21 phone interview.
Paulette and Larry have always tried to treat Jeremy the same as their other two children – Jon, 10 years older, and Ashley, 8 years older. All went on a canoe trip to Canada when Jeremy was 18 months old, as they had done with the first two, with the proviso of Jeremy’s nephrologist that they stay within eight hours of Toronto Children’s Hospital.
“You’re going into the wilderness. You pack all your stuff in a canoe. You paddle from island to island,” said Paulette. “We put him in the canoe, we put him in a car seat and strapped him to the floor. Didn’t strap him in in case the canoe capsized. Here we are, the five of us.”
Jeremy also attended an individualized education program at Kent State University for four years.
“You know how hard it is for him to talk,” said Paulette, who worked full-time for BP for 20 years and part-time for another 10 years after Jeremy was born. “When we were at his IAP meeting, Jeremy stood up and said like a bell, ‘I want to go to Kent State.'”
The Gaias said empowerment became even more important to Jeremy during the pandemic when he was forced to quit his jobs at a trampoline park and at a chain drugstore in March 2020 because kidney disease increased his risk of COVID-19 morbidity. He had previously also helped out as an assistant athletic coach at West Geauga High School, but the virus ended that role as well.
Larry Gaia doesn’t know what Jeremy would have done without Empower and the contribution of the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship to keep it going. The global health crisis didn’t stop Jeremy from playing golf.
“Early on in the pandemic, he won a putting competition at his uncle Butch’s golf course in Solon,” said Larry, 70, who works for B. Riley Financial, proudly. “He sunk a putt from 30 feet. He was the only one who put it in the hole and the nearest other was about 6 feet away.”
When it comes to golf, Jeremy enjoys carting, high-fiving with his dad after a great swing and hitting the snack bar. But Larry said Jeremy’s idea of a good round of golf is “finding more golf balls than he loses”.
“We were at the driving range last night and he wanted to stop and get balls out of the creek,” Larry said, pointing to the ball retriever in Jeremy’s pocket.
When Jeremy bought a new golf bag last year and they transferred the contents, Larry could barely lift it.
“He probably had 50 pounds of golf balls that he found on the golf course,” Larry said.
His parents say that Jeremy is extremely sociable, but it took Jeremy a while to warm up during his Firestone interview. But he proudly displayed a hat signed by Vijay Singh during the 2004 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, a Fred Couples-signed Pebble Beach Golf Club flag given to him by his brother-in-law Chad a few years ago, and two Masters shirts Chad bought him.
“Vijay was in a hurry. It was after his post-lap range session and he was tired,” Larry recalled.
When mentioning Singh’s seemingly endless sessions on the driving range, Paulette said: “Jeremy loves getting autographs and he will wait for hours. He is the most patient person. He talks when he wants an autograph.
“The tournament really excited him. He loved watching the pros play and he loved walking around the pitch.”
Larry and Jeremy watch golf on TV every Saturday and Sunday and can’t wait to take part in this year’s Bridgestone Senior Players. Just seeing him set foot on the driving range at Firestone on Tuesday sparked Paulette’s emotions.
“The doctors told us he would never walk or speak and look at that. They didn’t know us and they didn’t know him,” she said. “The fact that he can play golf and be here on this course is like an absolute dream come true. He conquered so much.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.