Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 5 “You can walk!” Sorry?

Here’s the next excerpt from chapter two of my book. It continues the narrative relating to my experiences at my first tournament, the Cajun Classic in Baton Rouge Louisiana.  It’s about walking:

The tournament’s first logistical task was to get 125 athletes, many of whom were from abroad, from the airport to the tournament site, the Lamar Tennis Center, a twenty-court facility at a YMCA complex in Southwest Baton Rouge. The tournament’s organizers asked the athletes to provide their flight information so that wheelchair-adapted vans with volunteer drivers could be at the airport to pick up them up. Like I said, one of the factors the ITF takes into account in sanctioning a particular tournament level is the availability of transportation. This is especially important for ITF 1 tournaments because of the large number of international players. Unless they have an able-bodied companion, such as a coach—a number of the European players travel with a coach—they can’t rent a car. Even if they could, given tight budgets, having tournament-provided transportation really helps keep down the overall costs of participation. A number of internationals told me they struggle financially to play in the tour. When you get into the lettered divisions, especially in smaller competitions, tournament-provided transport might not be that crucial because a good number of players drive to the tournaments with their parents, partners, or friends.

Unlike most wheelchair tennis athletes, I’m ambulatory, using a cane when I have to, like when I’m taking a long walk outside or dealing with uneven ground. As I walked to baggage claim with my tennis bag, I saw a bunch of other athletes who arrived at about the same time. They were all in their “day chairs,” as opposed to their sports wheelchairs, which they checked for the flight. Because of the camber, which makes it hard to get through most doors, virtually none of the athletes use their sports chairs unless they’re on the court. They push their sports chairs with one hand as they enter the court and then transfer from their day chairs.

When I saw them I immediately felt really awkward, maybe a bit guilty. I felt like an outsider. I could walk but they couldn’t. I was looking down at them, which felt like I was looking down on them. I felt like I had to get into my sports wheelchair ASAP. But doing that would itself be awkward.  I didn’t matter to me. The sooner I could get into the chair, the better. I wanted to be like them so I could be with them. Maybe they would talk to me. Maybe they would accept me. Maybe we would exchange smiles, become friends.

So when I got to the Lamar Tennis Center, I didn’t walk when I easily could have. No, I felt I had to be in a wheelchair at all times to fit in, even though I was in a sports wheelchair. As I rolled around the site, other athletes in their day chairs gave me a baffled look. “Why aren’t you in your day chair, mate?” I imagined one of the Brit players asking me. More likely, they were saying to themselves, “First time, is it? Get a clue, mate.” It was only after going to a number of tournaments that summer that I realized the “etiquette” was to stand up and walk if you can. I remember the first time I got out of my wheelchair and walked among athletes in their day chairs. One of them exclaimed, “You can walk!” I froze, not knowing what to say. Maybe “sorry?” What they were really saying, the subtext, was, “Don’t be stupid and sit in your sports wheelchair when you’re lucky enough to walk!”

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