Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #18 On Losing Your Way Of Life

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My final match of the camp’s tournament was against Nick Taylor, the legendary quadriplegic who plays in a motorized chair. I first heard of Nick when I started playing wheelchair tennis in Cedar Rapids, Iowa two years earlier. During one of our practices, Kevin Nebergall, our coach, asked us if we knew of Nick Taylor. Who? Nick Taylor, one of the most highly-ranked quads in the world who serves the ball with his foot. What? That’s right, Kevin assured us, his foot! And he whacks the ball over the net with a wicked underhand serve. I tried to imagine that…

Adaptation. One of the definitions of that word is the process we go through when we deal with changed circumstances. It’s a dynamic term that suggest forward movement despite a calamitous, life changing event that brings everything to a stop. One day I was jogging along a winding gravel road in Bloomington, Indiana, and a week later, thanks to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, I was completely paralyzed and dying in an intensive care unit.

If and when we’re transferred to a rehab unit, we begin the process of adapting to our changed bodies. If we’re quads, we have to learn how to do basic things with our mostly paralyzed hands. Using a fork to stab a brussel sprout.  Grasping a toothbrush and squeezing toothpaste on it.  Then getting the brush to our teeth rather than up a nostril. Using a “buttoner” to deal with shirt buttons.

After we’ve mastered the “activities of daily living,” we’re discharged and sent back into the world of trees, of clouds and birds above us, of concrete sidewalks teaming with people on their way to work or a baseball game. We go on with life. We adapt. Our reckoning with devastating change retreats to some space in our psyches that protects us, allowing us to move forward. But we never forget what we once had and lost. When we least expect it, maybe when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a department store window, our psyches takes us back to those moments in time when we happily jogged along a gravel road, when we used a fork, brushed our teeth, and buttoned our shirts effortlessly. We exhale, blink. The moments recede. We push forward. Again. And again.

Is the narrative any different if you’re born with a physical disability? Let’s find out. Let’s get to know Nick.

Finding His Way to Tennis

Nick was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that results in limbs being permanently fixed in a way that restricts movement. In Nick’s case, the restrictions are pretty severe. “I’ve never touched my foot with my hand in my life.” He can close his hands but he can’t open them. His arms barely move. His grip strength is very weak. He has no biceps. Yes, he has some triceps, but they’re not strong enough to lift himself out of his chair. Nick’s dad helps him with just about all of his activities of daily living, such as getting out of bed, brushing his teeth, and taking a shower. It came as no surprise to his parents that Nick needed a motorized wheelchair early on in life, when he was two years old.

Nick’s mom worked for Cessna, and his dad owned a property management company in Wichita. They also trained horses to compete in shows. When he was a kid, Nick was always at the horse barn. His parents joked that as they realized how much care Nick would need—he’s had more than thirty-five surgeries—he became the horse they had to train. Nick “the horse” Taylor. It has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

Surprisingly, or not, Nick wasn’t into tennis that much when he was a kid. Soccer was his sport, in large part because he was an avid fan of the Wichita Wings, a professional indoor soccer team in town. Although soccer triggered his life-long love of sports, for a number of years he used his wheelchair as a deterrent from playing a sport. People like him don’t play sports, can’t play sports, he thought. It was in elementary school that he finally came to embrace the fact that he would have to use his wheelchair if he wanted to play sports. And it wasn’t long before he realized that he was good with his feet.

Nick’s path to the top echelons of wheelchair tennis began when he was in middle school. The trigger that propelled him forward was the trauma of loss, but not, as in my case, the loss of able-bodied functioning.  Like everyone I’ve talked about in this book, Nick had his day of reckoning, the day when the reality of the physical condition he was born into, a condition that arbitrarily befell him, hit him with such brutal violence that he couldn’t see straight. It was when he lost him mom and sense of family. His mother left Nick and his dad when he was twelve, which left Nick bitter and angry. If that wasn’t bad enough, soon thereafter his father was diagnosed with brain lesions. He would die in six months, the doctors said. What would Nick do without his father? “I was going to lose my way of life.”

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