Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #12 Finding the Roadrunner

Here’s the next excerpt from chapter three of my book about how a wheelchair tennis tournament came into being. But that’s the superficial story. More compelling is the subtext about how the individual narratives of Alan and Jim connected to create a broader narrative that would save Brian from falling irretrievably into the abyss.

Alan and Jim Link Up

After joining the Northland Racquet Club, Alan and Jim became good friends, the friendship nurtured in part by club-sponsored trips they took together. It wasn’t long before the duo became leaders of a group at the club that developed a tradition of holding yearly fundraisers for various causes, ranging from assistance for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti to support for the Global Orphan Project. It quickly became apparent to Alan that Jim was “loved and respected by everyone and known by all.” He had a way of making those around him feel important and valuable, a trait that would earn Jim a place in the Heart of America Tennis Hall of Fame.

Brainstorming Leads to a Wheelchair Tennis Clinic

At the beginning of 2013, the group started brainstorming on what project they would support for that year. One of the group’s members suggested doing something to support wheelchair tennis, noting that the USTA wanted to support and grow the sport.   Great! So . . . now what? Hey, how about a documentary about wheelchair tennis! It could be filled with so many compelling stories! Yeah, that’s the ticket! Not. They couldn’t find donors to foot the bill. Okay, let’s see . . . how about . . . some sort of wheelchair tennis event, like a clinic! Yes, that’s it! Awesome! Uh . . . well . . . how exactly . . . Don’t you need people to attend the clinic? And how do we find sports wheelchairs? They’re not exactly cheap.

Recruiting Nick Taylor

As to the first question, they contacted Nick Taylor in Wichita. Nick’s life direction was first decided in his mother’s womb, when he was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that results in limbs being permanently fixed in a way that restricts movement, in Nick’s case pretty severely.  But check this out: He just happens to be one of the highest ranked quad players nationally and globally. And he plays in a motorized wheelchair. How sick is that! A tireless promoter of wheelchair tennis, Nick said he would love to attend the clinic to help draw participants. But he told the Northland group not to worry too much about the numbers. The clinic would be a success if only one or two players showed up. As to the second question, the group received a grant to buy a couple of sports wheelchairs.

Finding the Roadrunner

The first potential participant they thought of was Brian, the roadrunner. But where was he? Two weeks before the clinic, Jim tried calling Brian using the number he had used years earlier when Brian participated in the “hit and run” clinic. Brian didn’t answer. Jim left a message, “If this is you, Brian, we want you to let you know that we’re putting on a tennis clinic.”

Brian didn’t return the call. After the accident, he dropped off the tennis radar screen. It was as if he moved away from Kansas City. He lived life in the shadows, even avoiding reflections of himself in a wheelchair as he rolled past store windows. He steered clear of large crowds because he felt nobody could see him. He was invisible. And even if he wasn’t, people had to look down at him to talk. Were they thinking the same thing of him that before May 31st, 2002 he had thought of people in wheelchairs? Pity? Dismissive of him as a full human being? Brian actually ran into Jim a few years before the clinic. The instant Jim saw Brian, the roadrunner, in a wheelchair, a great wave of shock and sadness washed over him. Brian explained the accident to Jim and said he had no reason to go to Northland because he had become paralyzed from the waist down.

But Brian eventually did decide to attend the clinic, if only out of respect for Jim. They held it in April, 2013. Fifteen people attended. The participants’ physical challenges varied from birth conditions, to accidents, to persons who had contracted a disease. Nick Taylor brought inspiration and energy to the clinic, telling the participants that they would miss the ball a lot but that’s how most experienced players started.  Jim’s challenge as a coach was to keep the participants engaged, some of whom had never played the sport, whether in a wheelchair or on their legs like Brian. Jim had the newbies stationed just two feet away from the net. Just as Nick had predicted, they missed a lot.

Brian was hesitant to play, wanting to avoid looking like a “spastic.” Then he hit the tennis ball with the racquet’s sweet spot. The ball sailed over the net. And as Jim said of all the players in the clinic who did the same thing for the first time, “it was like they had just won Wimbledon.”

 

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