Wheelchair tennis comes to the Northland.
There were fifteen participants at the first wheelchair tennis clinic at the Northland Racquet Club. Each came in at a different skill level and each was in a chair for a different reason. All of them had so much fun they stayed an extra hour to keep hitting balls.
That was two years ago. This spring, Northland Racquet Club hosted the Wheel It Forward Wheelchair Tournament. Nineteen players came from as far as Washington, D.C. and Michigan to compete for monetary prizes totaling $4,000.
“Wheelchair tennis is new in Kansas City,” says Alan Klaus, tournament coordinator, “but it started in the 1970s and there are more than 100 tournaments across the country.”
Wheelchair tennis started in a rehabilitation center in California in 1976. Brad Parks, a former skier who had been paralyzed in an accident, met Jeff Minnebraker, his new recreational therapist, who had been injured in a car accident and had designed a lighter chair specifically for tennis.
Parks and Minnebraker went into business together, selling the chairs, and as word began to spread about the chair and the sport, Parks started the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis and the Wheelchair Tennis Players Association.
Randy Snow, one of two wheelchair players in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, helped popularize the game in the states and won the wheelchair tennis national title at the U.S. Open ten times.
Jean-Pierre Limborg built the game in his native France and then around the world. And Esther Vergeer of Holland won 42 Grand Slam titles, was ranked number one for 14 consecutive years, and won her last 470 matches. She remains one of the most dominant athletes in history and is the most famous wheelchair player of all time.
Jim Pfeffer, co-founder of Wheel It Forward, became involved at the suggestion of the United States Tennis Association two years ago.
“Being in a chair isn’t just physical,” says Pfeffer. “The effects of being in a chair are mental, emotional, and spiritual. Wheelchair tennis opens up a new area of alternative recreation that many thought would never be available to them.”
Jack Spicer, a wheelchair tennis participant, suffers from muscle atrophy and thought he’d never play tennis again. Klaus encouraged him to try playing from a chair; Spicer calls it a “major boon” because it gave him back the joy he used to find in sports that he thought he’d never experience again.
“It’s really something,” says Spicer, “and the only way this could have happened was for me to play out of a chair. It’s an eye-opener, to see the motivation that it takes for these people to play.”
Klaus shares stories of a few Wheel It Forward participants, including Katie Garcia, who was dealing with isolation and depression; participating in wheelchair tennis turned her life around.
There’s Brian McMillan, who’s been in a chair for the past fifteen years. He was a former tennis player at the club; Pfeffer went looking for him when wheelchair tennis became an option at the club, left messages at prior phone numbers, and eventually tracked him down and invited him to play.
“At first,” says Pfeffer, “he said there was no way he’d play because he thought he’d look like a fool. He intentionally came thirty minutes late one day, to watch, and we got him on the court. He said it was the first time he felt that sweet spot of the racquet just like he had before, and he knew it was time.”
Glenn has multiple sclerosis and could barely open his hand; now he can toss a ball up in the air. His mom comments about his coordination and ability to hit the ball; neither of them thought it would ever happen.
“There’s a camaraderie here, just like in any other sport, but even better,” says Klaus.
“We all have what we have to deal with,” says Spicer. “This is our respite. It’s our time with others who understand the rigors of our reality, and it’s an inspiring thing, to see someone triumph in a way they never thought they could. And the smiles! Seeing them smile when they’re out there is what it’s all about.”
The monetary reward of competing is also a draw.
“The competitors train to come to the tournament, which is a tangible goal that drives them for months,” Klaus says. “The fact that there’s some prize money helps, too.”
Every participant wins at least $50 and admission to a banquet. Organizers also negotiate discounted hotel rooms and other perks.
“Traveling with chairs is expensive,” says Klaus. “Plus there’s the hassle of getting from where they are to here with their chair. The money is a fun incentive and it stokes their motivation.”
To date Wheel It Forward has relied on the generosity of others and grant money to expand. Jason Grubb, general manager, donates court time for practices and clinics. Spicer reached out to former professional contacts to solicit donations and support. One member bought a sport chair and the group was able to purchase two more chairs through a United States Tennis Association grant.
“The goal is to have more corporate sponsors, like Fed Ex Ground who sponsored this year, as we go forward,” says Klaus. “It’s an important event because everyone can play, regardless of mobility issues. It’s truly open to all skill levels and to everyone who wants to play.”
“Everyone finds it inspirational,” says Spicer, “and everyone who watches or participates sees the happiness and achievement that the players feel when they’re out there.”
To learn more visit WheelItForward.org or call Jack Spicer at 816.547.0493 or Northland Racquet Club at 816.842.8811.