Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #16 The Lousy Student

Chapter Five

Wichita’s “The Air Capital Classic”

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The plane touched down in Wichita at about noon on Wednesday, June 17. It was a sunny and really hot day. I didn’t check the forecast for the Air Capital Classic combined camp and tournament. Had I taken the time, I would’ve seen that I was heading into a typical Wichita summer: crippling heat–uppers 90s (like 98-99) and horrible humidity during the whole event. But that wouldn’t have stopped me. When I met Nick Taylor at the Cajun Classic and saw him again in Kansas City, he encouraged me to attend the tournament that he and Grady Landrum had put together for sixteen years in a row—the camp was in its third year. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to take my game to the next level, especially as a quad player. I also looked forward to getting to know more about the tournament’s co-directors. Like the “Wheel It Forward” tournament in Kansas City, I would once again be playing a round robin against three other quads: Nick, Grady, and Taylor Graham.

When I looked up the tournament on the USTA’s website, it was listed as “The Air Capital Classic.” It was a catchy title and it made sense because of the major aircraft industry in Wichita that dates back to the 1920’s—the city is known as the “Air Capital of the World.”  But if I had a hand in choosing a title, I might have suggested “The Wichita Meltdown” because of the insane heat. I suppose, though, that the “I-can’t-think-straight-because-of-this-friggin-heat” connotation wouldn’t draw many participants.

This would be my first camp. Nick and Grady came up with the idea for a camp/tournament combination when the tournament’s attendance got socked during the 2008-2009 financial crisis in the country. As the numbers declined, they thought of a way to bring them back up: a clinic before the tournament. With that set-up, people can put the skills they’ve learned in the camp into practice right away in the tournament.

There were forty-four players at the camp. The athletes came from all parts of the country with a full range of skills, from the most pathetic, me, to pretty advanced players. There was Lauren Haneke-Hopps (A division), a high school student from San Diego whose passion for sports extends to kayaking, rock climbing, snorkeling, and baseball. Paola Adams (B division), a Chilean strategy and operations consultant now living in Oklahoma—she had recently taken up the sport.  The C division included John Watson, a basketball and softball player who had just received his Master’s in Communications from University of Texas, Arlington and now works for Kansas University in Lawrence.

We all gathered on the courts of the Riverside Tennis Center Wednesday evening for the first session of the camp. The five coaches introduced themselves:  Jason Harnett, U.S. Quad and Men’s World Team Cup Coach; Paul Walker, U.S. Women’s World Team Coach; Jeff Clark, Pro Coach to Nick Taylor; Kevin Heim, Lincoln, Nebraska’s Wheelchair Tennis Coach; and, of course, Nick Taylor. A pretty impressive group.

After coach Walker reminded us to be good boys and girls and clean up after ourselves, we split up into groups and worked on forehands, backhands, and serves. My forehand stroke was pretty decent by then. But my backhand needed major work. For most beginning players, the backhand is the most challenging to master. For me, it was especially hard because I was learning the “inverted backhand.” Non-quads can move the positioning of their grip depending on whether they’re hitting a forehand or backhand. But for most quads who tape their hands to the racquet, they have to decide what grip they can use for both forehand and backhand without switching grips. Some use a grip that lets them play a regular forehand and backhand using a “continental” grip. But my wrist is too weak to do that. Given my semi-western grip (try picking up the handle from the floor), my coaches had me learn the inverted backhand. Instead of the palm of your hand facing inward on a backhand, the palm is facing away from you. The coaches had me imagine throwing a tennis ball across the net with my left palm facing away from me. It’s really hard. But I finally began to get the feel of it at the camp.

As the camp progressed the next day, we concentrated more on strategy. We worked on getting back to “the hub” after a stroke. As a refresher, the hub is the area about three feet behind the baseline at the center of the court. I’m a left-hander. So if I roll to my left to hit a forehand, after the hit I should instantly turn into the court and push back at an angle to the hub. If I roll to my right to hit a backhand, after the hit I should instantly turn out and get my butt back into the hub. And as I’m getting back, I’m supposed to look across court to see where the next ball will go. I felt I was going to hurl after doing that drill for about six hits in the searing heat.

As the day wore on, I realized that I was one of the worst players in the camp. I began thinking that the coaches were writing me off. A 58 year-old lost cause. Then it hit me. After almost thirty years, I was a student again. If that wasn’t bad enough, I was at the bottom of the pack. Me, a mediocre student. I didn’t like the feeling.

Actually, I hated it. The other players seemed to be getting the attention than I craved from the “professors.” They seemed to be receiving more compliments than I did.  It didn’t matter that I was misperceiving it all. I felt like running—rolling—to the Dean’s office to complain that my profs were violating every policy known to humankind and ruining my chances of becoming the next number one quad player in the world, thereby robbing me of millions of dollars and my own private island.

Then I came to my senses. The coaches were fine teachers who knew when to intervene to improve us individually and as a group.

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