As Sebastien Jacques walked up Beamer Way pushing his stroller toward the Merryman Center, he noticed a small group of people awaiting his arrival, and he started to get emotional.
“I didn’t expect emotions,” he said. “That was kind of a shocker to me … People don’t necessarily know sometimes, but this place to me is like a second home. It’s absolutely amazing.”
Monday marked the arrival of the former Virginia Tech men’s tennis player, and perhaps more importantly, it marked the completion of the latest stage in the most ambitious endeavor of his young life – walking across America.
Many may not remember the backstory here, but Jacques missed much of his senior year in 2010-11 ultimately because a pineal cystic tumor located on his brain sapped him of the energy needed to do the most basic of things. It took a long time, though, to get to that diagnosis. Following his graduation from Tech in 2011, he returned to his home in Magog, Canada, and he visited with numerous doctors over the course of four years. They deemed a surgical procedure too risky and remained unconvinced that the cyst was the actual cause of the problem.
“We had him at home for four years,” Jacques’ mom, Judith Drouin, said. “We were running around all the time, going to different hospitals. We tried everything. He couldn’t even walk around in a store. He’d walk in and make sure there were benches nearby, so he’d have a place to rest.”
Jacques, though, used the Internet to research pineal cystic tumors. He found a doctor in Santa Monica, California – Dr. Daniel Kelly – who performed these types of brain surgeries with regularity. The Canadian government runs the healthcare system in that country and refused to pay for the surgery, but Jacques, undeterred, raised the cash needed, with some coming from the tennis community and Virginia Tech fans. He and his parents then flew to California, and he underwent surgery Feb. 12, 2015.
The surgery turned out to be an overwhelming success. Jacques quickly returned to his old self, full of energy and optimistic about his future. He ended up taking a job as a tennis instructor in Australia, and he found a place to live on the beach. He made the move, simply ready to resume a normal life.
“I just wanted to start over. I was back to myself after four years,” he said. “But after a couple of months, it came out. Someone did some research, and it was like, ‘Seb, you had brain surgery.’ So I had to share my story.
“Then I talked to a mother out there, and she asked me, ‘Could you talk to my daughter? She’s had some serious health issues and maybe you could give her hope.’ Then I decided, that by sharing my story, I could help people. If I could help just one person, I’d be happy.”
Those facing dire health situations serve as his primary motivation, but there are motivating factors – those who face relationship issues, those dealing with bullying at school, those with career struggles, among others. He wants to bring a message of hope and perseverance.
Of course, there are many avenues in which to help those in difficult situations. Jacques, though, took a rather extreme route – he decided to walk across the United States.
That sounds like a crazy idea to most people. Yet walking carries a more symbolic meaning for Jacques.
“I decided to do the walk because, before I had my surgery, I wasn’t able to walk 15 minutes a day,” he said. “The doctors told me to learn to live that way.
“Now, I’ll be able to say that I wasn’t able to walk 15 minutes a day, but here I am walking eight hours a day across America. I’m doing this to share with you guys that you will face tough times in your life, but you can get over it, learn from it, grow from it and accomplish amazing things.”
Jacques started his journey in the province of Quebec, walking from Magog to Montreal to Quebec City because he wanted to start it at home. Then he and his mom drove to Virginia Beach because he wanted to walk coast to coast. He began walking April 21, with his mom following behind him all the way to Blacksburg.
He planned to take Tuesday off to visit with Tech men’s tennis coach Jim Thompson and to show his mom around campus.
“She wanted to see the school again, so I think it’s pretty cool that I can show her around,” Jacques said.
Drouin left Blacksburg on Wednesday morning to return to Quebec. At that point, Jacques will resume his quest alone for the first time.
He walks roughly 19 miles per day right now and hopes to increase that to 25. Those interested can follow along through his website (www.sebastienjacques.com), which includes a map. Fans also can follow through Twitter (@iamsebjacques), through Instagram (@iamsebjacques) and through Facebook.
He plans to camp in secure locations at night, but he also hopes that Virginia Tech friends, fans and alums who read this article and others offer him a place to stay for the night as he approaches their respective cities and towns.
Around late November or early December, he hopes to walk into city of Santa Monica and eventually to the doors of Providence Saint John’s Health Center – the site of his surgery. He wants to shake the hand of Dr. Kelly and other members of his surgical team whom he hasn’t seen since the surgery. He also wants to thank them.
The final leg will consist of walking from Quebec City to Magog, his hometown. Returning home to finish the trip means so much to Jacques. His family and his closest friends live there, and much of the money raised for the surgery came from the folks there in Magog.
“That route is my life story,” he agreed. “I wanted to start in Quebec because that’s where I’m from, and that’s where we raised most of the money for my surgery. I wanted to start in Quebec, I wanted to come to Tech and I wanted to go across the country. So I started in Virginia Beach and came to Tech, where my health issues started, and finished by shaking hands with the neurosurgeon who gave me my life back. Then I’m going back to Quebec for the last two weeks, sort of a victory lap.”
After that, he is unsure of his future. A few businesses approached him about the possibility of motivational speaking once he finished. A publisher mentioned a potential book deal, and that carries some appeal because Jacques considers himself a better writer than speaker.
But for the moment, he’s simply living day by day, putting one foot in front of the other. That seems like a perfect philosophy, especially considering his story.
“I wouldn’t want to go back and erase any of that,” he said. “It made me who I am today — and I’m a strong believer that tough times in life make us who we are.”
— Jimmy Roberts, VT Athletics