Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #13 The Tournament That Created A Community

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The “Wheel It Forward” Tournament

The clinic’s turnout convinced Jim and Alan that there was a real need for a physical outlet for persons with disabilities. Putting on a tournament seemed like the next logical but ambitious step. Since Brian was completely sold on the sport—he bought his own sports wheelchair, which handled “like a Porsche”—in December 2013 they sent him to the Wichita tournament as an observer. There Brian witnessed something else that deep down he truly wanted and needed: camaraderie, collegiality, and the opportunity to network with other athletes.

After observing in Wichita, Brian played in the tournament in Lincoln in August, 2014 and a few months later in Wichita. He briefed Jim and Alan on how those tournaments were run, and became the goodwill ambassador for the Kansas City tourney.

Having been briefed by Brian, Jim, Alan and other volunteers went to work on gathering the sponsors needed to underwrite their event. Jason Grubb, the owner and general manager of the six-court indoor Northland Racquet Club, generously donated the courts for the tournament. Over a dozen other sponsors and donors in the KC community kicked in thousands of dollars.

On Friday morning, April 10, 2015, with donuts, coffee, water, bananas, and other treats (no M&Ms or KitKats—sorry, Jim) spread out on tables in a small reception area, Alan welcomed eighteen inspired athletes to the First Annual “Wheel It Forward” Wheelchair Tennis Tournament. During the three days of the tournament the participants, no matter the skill level, played as worthy athletes, not victims of bad luck or fate. Jim made sure each of us understood that.

Pushing Through the Dark Space

Brian had finally come out of the shadows he had been in since the trauma of his accident. “I’m back in the game.” That he was.

Today, Brian’s life narrative is enriched and sustained by the broader narrative of the wheelchair tennis community. You see, the Wheel It Forward tournament was not just a competition where athletes won or lost matches. It created a space for the celebration of life. Brian says, “The saying, ‘We’re all in this together’ is never more true than in the wheelchair tennis community. We share collective community. When you don’t show up at a tournament, people notice, people care.”

Although Brian’s will power helped him reach his new space, he didn’t do it alone. Many other persons with their own life’s narratives guided Brian to the door between the two spaces—his family, friends, doctors, nurses, and therapists.

But there were two key life narratives that came together with Brian’s to wheel him forward via a tennis ball flying over a net in a tennis club in Kansas City. One was that of Alan Klaus, whose narrative as an adult began with a play on a high school football field in Beatrice, Nebraska.  The other was that of Jim Pfeffer, whose narrative began in Manitowoc, Wisconsin as he watched his high school tennis team practice while he crunched on candy. Whether it was the candy or surviving the Ice Bowl, Jim was at the heart of the collective space inhabited by the individual narratives of this story. Alan told me, “It would be very accurate to say that without Jim there would be no Wheel It Forward. Someone once told me that they would be afraid to tell Jim they wanted to play tennis on the moon because by the next week he would have the rocket ship booked!”

******

My game had improved since the Cajun Classic. I was more mobile and had a stronger stroke. I won one game—one game, not a set—in a round robin against three other quads: Taylor Graham, a young man from Lincoln who was in a motorcycle accident, Grady Landrum, a veteran player from Wichita who got smashed up in a car accident years ago, and Nick Taylor. I had no chance against Grady and Nick. Grady had perfected a sliced serve that I couldn’t handle, and Nick  . . . well, he had pity on me. I played some good balls against Taylor. Both of us were still getting use to using our quad-limited bodies to play the game effectively. I had to bow out of the second set because I developed severe pain in my taped-up hand. No, I wasn’t faking it!

The best part of the tournament was when Nick came over to me after my match against him and showed me how to effectively pivot to play a forehand. Most players have a stronger forehand than backhand. So when able-bodied players get a chance they will quickly shuffle into the forehand position. To mimic this in a wheelchair, you have to push yourself away from the ball and then turn into it. Nick got behind me with his motorized chair and pushed my chair through the maneuver. Nick Taylor touched my chair! I’m never going to wash it!

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