Michael J. Fox challenged people's perceptions of Parkinson's disease when he laced up some skates a couple of years ago, and showed off his hockey skills. Now a racquetball court in Ottawa is drawing researchers, trying to understand why the tremors disappear when that racquetball hits the ground.

It's hard to tell which player on the court at the Bob MacQuarrie Recreation Complex has Parkinson's Disease.  They seem equally matched, fluid in their movements and steady on their feet. Off the court, though, tremors make it difficult for Jacques Seguin to tie his laces.   Seguin was diagnosed 11 years ago with Parkinson's, a neurodegenerative disorder that causes tremors, balance issues and rigid muscles.

A few years ago, he decided to try the racquetball court at his condo.  He plays about 5 times a week and can't believe how he feels on the court.

"Parkinson’s may get me in the long haul,” says Seguin, “but every day that I play racquetball, I win.  I become myself, and for a number of minutes, for a number of hours, I’m just like I was.  That's a great feeling.  It's bliss.”

Seguin introduced a few friends with Parkinson's to the sport.  They, too, saw their symptoms disappear while playing.

Lou Sawaya was diagnosed two years ago, “The slowness is gone away (when I play) because probably we're recruiting different pathways in the brain all the while having fun.”

Don Ferguson coaches the group.  The retired colonel is on the fitness staff with the Bob MacQuarrie Rec Complex.  With on-line research and help from physiotherapists, Ferguson trained himself how to develop a course geared towards people with Parkinson’s.  It is appropriately called “People with Parkinson’s extended Racquetball classes and combine the sport with a rigid set of warm-up and cool-down exercises to maximize fluidity of movement and balance.  Ferguson believes sports like racquetball work on “muscle memory”.

"If they played any racquet sport at all,” says Ferguson, “ping pong, tennis, racquetball, whatever, it stays there, in the brain, like riding a bike.  You don't forget that.”

Canadian actor Michael J. Fox has become the voice for Parkinson's research.  He wowed a lot of people when he strapped on his skates for hockey video called “Hockey is Our Game.”  Researchers know there is a positive effect on Parkinson's disease during intense sport but they are not sure why. University of Ottawa assistant professor Julie Nantel is hoping to find out. Nantel, who is with the School of Human Kinetics, piloted a study involving Jacques Seguin and his group to determine the “acute effect of racquetball on motor symptoms in Parkinson disease.”

“It was striking to me how they were able to play and move so easily on the court,” says Nantel.

Her initial study looked at the short-term effects of racquetball on this group.  Now, she's doing a study to find out whether there are long-term effects. 

Jacques Seguin doesn't need a study to prove the long-term effects.  He’s experiencing them first-hand.

“It feels like I win on Parkinson’s” says Seguin, as he heads back onto the court.