Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #15 The Reckoning’s Coming

 

If you go to a wheelchair tennis tournament, you’ll see us competing on the courts. When we’re not playing, you’ll likely see us engaged in animated conversations, often breaking out in a cacophony of laughter. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find the scar tissue of a traumatic moment, a moment when each of us faced the inevitable reckoning with a body seemingly lost to us. You can’t prepare for the reckoning’s coming. When it does come, it hits you with such brutal force that you can hardly breathe. And yet somehow we survive to laugh again. Here’s the next excerpt from my book.

Chapter Five

Wichita’s “The Air Capital Classic”

“It’s unlikely you’ll ever walk again.” What Dr. Silbert said wasn’t registering with me. What?

Unlikely.

You’ll.

Ever.

Walk.

Again.

“Wait. Say that again? I must not have heard you right, doctor,” I said in a whisper.

It was mid-September, 1980, and I was sitting in a wheelchair in my room at Hook Rehabilitation Center in Indianapolis when those gut-wrenching words collided with my ears.

I had survived the summer of torture in Bloomington Hospital’s ICU. I was breathing on my own. Shallow breaths. But still, they were my own. They took the feeding tube out and I ate, with great difficulty, some sort of baby-food-like slop. I could talk, but only a little bit now and then, and only in whispered tones. Trying to coordinate my breath, jaw, tongue and lips to be able to speak was a gargantuan task. I had some movement in my shoulders and upper arms, traces in my forearms and hands. Same for my trunk. And if you stared hard and long enough, you could see my quadriceps flinch occasionally. That was it. There was nothing more they could do for me in Bloomington. It was time for rehabilitation.  To rehabilitate is to restore. To what, though?

******

 

There were two ways to take Dr. Silbert’s words. One was, “Don’t get your hopes up. Rehabilitation doesn’t mean we’ll get you back to where you were before you contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome.” The other way was, “I’m saying this so that you can prove me wrong.” It was probably a bit of both. In any event, I didn’t have much time to dwell on the possible interpretations. As soon as I was admitted, the Hook staff let me know in no uncertain terms that I was in rehab boot camp. It went something like this: “You’re not in a hospital anymore, so get that out of your head, pronto. No more nursing gowns. You’re going to wear real clothes. You’re going to do as much as you can for yourself as soon as you can. You got that?” “Sir, yes, sir!” “I can’t hear you!” Uhh . . . that’s because I can hardly talk? “What’s that? Huh, you pathetic hospital junky. Now drop down and give my fifty!” Oh, shit.

The morning after I was admitted I was on the mats in the physical therapy room. To arrive at a baseline, the physical therapist carefully measured the weakness in every part of my body. She used some sort of numbered scale, but she could’ve saved time by just writing, “pathetically weak.” From there, I was off to the occupational therapy room, where I would learn once again how to take care of myself, from showering to dressing. After a break, they took me to speech therapy where I would learn to talk again. This would be my weekly regimen for the next five months. Training to be a Navy Seal? Hmmm . . .

******

“Tonight you’re going to feed yourself,” the occupational therapist told me. She helped me sit in the wheelchair, strapped me in so I wouldn’t fall, and wheeled me over to the table in my room. She then brought in a metal contraption that she secured to the right side of my chair. It was designed to allow people with very limited arm strength to feed themselves. She placed my right arm on the contraption’s arm rest, taped a spoon to my hand, and via a number of inter-connected rods I could swivel my hand to my mouth. Pretty cool!

She then placed a round sticky mat on the table and put a plate of food on it: squishy broccoli, some sort of pureed mystery meat, and mashed potatoes. My severely weak swallowing mechanism couldn’t handle anything else. “Have at it, Enrique!” She left the room. It was just me and the food. I was hungry after all the day’s therapy.

Using what little shoulder strength I had, I managed to get the spoon to the plate and scoop up some mashed potatoes. With a few more shoulder movements, I launched the spoon to my mouth and fed myself for the first time in six months. I was deliriously happy. I went for another scoop, this time the meat. Successful! Yes!

Then something happened with the contraption. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t maneuver my hand to the plate. I tried over and over again. No luck. I looked for the call button to get help, but it was sitting beyond my reach on the bed. I looked out at the hallway hoping someone would come in and check on me. No one, not even a passing visitor.

I was alone. There was my food, just inches away from me, and I couldn’t get to it. I couldn’t do something as basic yet vital for a human to live: eat. Just over six months ago, I never would’ve thought twice about being able to put food in my mouth.

It hit me so hard that I could barely breathe. This thing, this fucking syndrome, took my body away from me. I was a shell of what I used to be. All because I had the goddam flu. Who was I kidding? The doctor was right. I would never walk again, let alone run again. My hands, just skin and bones, would no longer be able to do the simplest things in life, like buttoning my shirt. Why? Why me? What did I do wrong? What horrible sin did I commit that warranted such a brutally harsh punishment, condemning me to life as a quadriplegic?

Until that point I was consumed with staying alive in the ICU, and then transitioning to the challenges of rehabilitation. That evening, alone, and unable to feed myself, I had finally confronted the reckoning that had been awaiting me. I wept uncontrollably. Wept for the loss of a life I otherwise would have had as an able-bodied person.

On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #6 The Interview: “Was it something I said?”

Here we move to the job interview. For law students, the critical interview comes in the fall semester of the second year. That’s when law firms come to campus to hunt for their slaves–I mean, to look for “summer associates” for the summer following the second year. Those placements are critical because if the student does well, meaning he doesn’t throw up on a partner or show up in underwear on a casual Friday, he’ll get an offer to join the firm after graduating.  This scenario isn’t the only way students will find themselves in a job interview but it’s an important one.

We all know the prep for an interview: dress properly, have a firm handshake, look the interviewer in the eye, be ready to highlight your strong points, to distinguish yourself from other candidates, and to engage in small talk. Most important, have the $100 bill ready to slip the interviewer when you shake hands when leaving.

Oh, and we have to prepare for possible awkward or problematic situations. For example, whenever I meet someone for the first time, I expect that person will immediately look at my emaciated hands, typical of a quadriplegic. I usually give her a break. I mean, my hands are unusual to most people who haven’t been lucky enough to spend time around quads, the coolest people on the planet. I think it’s like meeting someone with a huge pimple on his nose. You can’t help but glance at it and then focus on something else as super quick as possible, like the pimple on his chin. So I’m usually okay if the person quickly looks at something else after glancing at my hands. If she keeps staring at my hands, I might say, “Do you like what you see?” She’ll feel like crap real quick.

In this excerpt, Kristymarie talks about the complexities a woman of color, particularly a Latina, might face in an interview. As you’ll see, it’s not so much what is said, but lies beneath that, the subtext. And the stereotypes that inhabit that space.

“The racialized and gendered candidate walks into an interview at a presumed disadvantage. To succeed, the candidate must attempt to level the interview playing field and simultaneously resist reacting to any microaggressions that come her way. Building a Bridge: Hiding Your Otherness to Remain Relatable

Given the lack of minority representation in many law firms, more often than not, a racialized candidate will cross-interview, or interview with someone who is not of the same race. The gendered candidate will most likely have a similar experience, often interviewing with someone of the opposite gender. Linda E. Dávila outlines the challenges inherent in cross-cultural and cross-gender interviews: “nonprofessional interviewers are likely to choose lawyers who they perceive as fitting their own patterns of behavior. Since these interviewers—who are mostly white males—may not see Hispanics as fitting the patterns of behavior of white males, they will look instead for someone who will.”

College preparatory materials, which target majority communities, teach bridge building as the skill of translating privileged life experiences, for example studying abroad, into relatable proficiencies and transferable skills during college or job interviews. Even if I used them in a different manner, these strategies had to become second nature to me. For a non-racialized or non-gendered candidate, the goal of bridge building is to not appear exclusivist or to make their privileged experiences relatable.

Racialized and gendered candidates utilize bridge building to build rapport in a different way. For example, in my experience, male interviewers wanted to discuss sports, a traditionally masculine subject. When I interacted with male interviewers, the performance of the Florida Gators football team came up during the interview. The impending Gators discussion meant that if I had missed the latest game, I needed to get an update from ESPN.com or my husband. Sometimes I went as far as finding out the undergraduate institution of the interviewer, checking for potential rivalries to exploit. Thus, in my experience, the racialized and gendered candidate has to build bridges, not by making their own privileged experiences relatable, but by highlighting experiences that are relatable from the interviewer’s privileged perspective—in this case, assumed competence in a traditionally masculine subject.

A.    Cross-Interviews: Highlighting Your Otherness While Navigating the Microaggressions Minefield

A candidate’s responses to microaggressions may subconsciously demonstrate to the interviewer whether the candidate’s identity performance may affect the workplace in the future. Microaggressions are subtle put-downs that minorities often experience during cross-race interactions. “Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” What differentiates microaggressions from what is commonly understood as out-and-out racial or gender discrimination is their subtlety and the fact that often times the perpetrator may be unaware that he or she is engaging in the behavior.

1.      “You Don’t Have An Accent.”

One of the most common covering strategies is changing speech patterns or altering vocabulary. Fully bilingual individuals may resort to mimicry, a language acquisition tool to improve pronunciation, as a covering tool. I am a mimicker. Personally, mimicking U.S. singers has helped a lot in hiding my accent. But when I let my guard down, and when I am nervous, excited, or speaking too quickly, my accent returns. I am constantly conflicted between covering my accent and embracing it. On the one hand, an accent could be a telltale sign of bilingual skills. Furthermore, it forces the listener to pay closer attention to avoid misinterpretation. On the other hand, someone with an accent may immediately be perceived as incompetent. Ethnoracism leads to negative perceptions of someone with an accent.

My mimicry also leads to a lack of control over my accent, which can be an asset or a hindrance. It is an asset when I pronounce 30 out of 32 words correctly simply by imitation. However, I may accidently copy someone’s distinct accent, which the person may perceive as mockery. In other instances, when my accent rears its “ugly” head, I am immediately perceived as incompetent. It stops being about the thirty victorious, properly pronounced words, and instead highlights my lack of dominance over those other two.

When an interviewer finds out that my first language is Spanish, I get the congratulatory “Oh, but you don’t have an accent.” The underlying message in this microaggression is a congratulation on efficiently assimilating. The laudatory note is a sign that an accent is something one should aim to get rid of, or that having an accent would more clearly define me as an “other” and I have successfully overcome that. My response to this microaggression is to reverse cover, highlighting my bilingualism as an asset and choosing to take the statement as a compliment on my successful second language acquisition. So I smile and say thank you, and turn my mimicry into a conversation piece. This conversation piece, however, continues to reinforce the racialized and gendered candidate’s isolation from the majority community.

2.     “I Did Not See the Latino Law Student Association in Your Résumé.”

When I walked into the room, I noticed the interviewer was a bit bewildered. My first thought was that an Anglicized name like Kristymarie Shipley, he was not exactly expecting a Latina to walk into the room.

This interview was my first in-person legal job interview. Thankfully, it was a mock interview that Career Services had set up to provide us feedback on our interviewing skills. For that reason, I tried not to take anything that happened in that interview personally. After all, this attorney’s job was to tell me what he was really, honestly thinking while he interviewed me so I could adjust my efforts as needed. I was not ready.

After the typical question (“So, tell me about yourself?”), and my prepared answer (a quick speech about my northward movements from Puerto Rico, to Florida, to Iowa), he dove in.

“So, I did not see the Latino Law Student Association in your résumé.”

Bam. Busted. I am not Latina enough… Wait, what?

He must have seen all these emotions play out on my face because he explained that he had interviewed a few white students and noticed that they were involved in the organization. These experiences, in turn, made him wonder why I was not in the organization or why I failed to list it on my résumé.

My internal answer was simple: “Because LLSA at Iowa Law is not an organization aimed at serving the Latino community within and outside the law school? Because if it does aim-to-serve, all its activities revolve around immigration as THE Latino issue.”

My verbal answer was: “Well, I was somewhat involved in LLSA last year, but I have limited space on my résumé and I felt it was more important to highlight the organizations I have put more time into.” He stared, so I continued. “Besides, the Latino Law Student Association’s trademark activity is an alternative spring break trip to Austin to work on immigration issues, which is why most people join. I am not interested in immigration like that, so I invested my time elsewhere.”

I thought that was a pretty solid save. It was a semi-intelligent response to the challenging of my chosen activities. I provided valid reasons, while explaining that I had at least been involved in the past. The implication here was that, as a Latina, I was expected to gravitate to what was perceived as a support group built for me. I perceived it as an accusation that even white students were supporting a culture that I seemed to have turned my back on. It was an unfair expectation and an assumption about the purpose and performance of what may have originally been meant as a support network, but no longer functioned as such. And then came the kicker.

3.     “Have You Thought About Changing Your Name Back to Your Maiden Name, or Hyphenating?”

The mock interview was very productive. The attorney explained that I needed to stay away from the “we” pronoun and start talking about myself in the first person. He listed my pros as being a Latina in a market that is becoming more diverse, solid grades, and extensive involvement in law school. My response was that being a Latina might not be a salient factor in my résumé. Unless a résumé reviewer looked too much into my B.A. in Spanish, my name and my involvement would not give my “Puerto Ricanness” away. Then I asked how I could highlight those characteristics he seemed impressed by.

“Have you thought about changing your name back to your maiden name, or hyphenating?”

I felt trivialized, and it was not until later on that I precisely understood my feelings at the time. I felt like my identity was disposable. I was asked to reverse cover, highlighting my most desirable outgroup membership, which in this job market seemed to be “Latina.” Taking your husband’s name, the decision to leave your familiar identity behind and join a new family, is a taxing one that few women take lightly. His comment, while I am sure was well intentioned, looked at my name as just a label that I could peel off and re-write according to the cover of my convenience.

I deadpanned and said “No.” Then I remembered that my goal was to walk out of the room with a connection, so I tilted my head sideways and said, “But that’s not a bad idea. I will consider it.””

 

On Being A Female Law Student—and Puerto Rican #5 To Identify Or Not To Identify On A Resume, That Is the Question

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” In this over-used-I’m-so-sick-of-it-I’m-going-to-throw-up-but-not-before-I-have-a-second-glass-of-wine soliloquy, Hamlet ponders the dilemma that life might suck but that death by suicide might suck even more. Here, Kristymarie moves from the classroom to the process of applying for a job, starting with crafting a resume. The dilemma she faces is whether on paper she should identify as a woman of color, with the uncertain repercussions that might follow from doing so.

All of us are taught to craft a resume that it will stand out and survive the immediate toss into the trash can or, in today’s world, the delete button. As Kristymarie’s excerpt points out, law firms, especially the big ones are trying to diversify—have a look at my postings about the world of document review. This would suggest that highlighting yourself as a person of color would be a no-brainer.

But maybe not. Let’s just focus on Big Law. First, let’s understand an unassailable, even if a highly frustrating, truth: The big firms won’t give a rat’s ass if you’re a person of color if you don’t make their GPA cut-off, usually about the top ten percent of the class if you’re not at Harvard, Yale or some of the highly-ranked law schools.

So assuming you make that cut, do you, say, highlight that you were heavily involved in Latino groups and activities in law school? If you know the firm is really trying to diversify, of course you would, right? After all, all other things being equal, would a white applicant be able to compete with you? It probably wouldn’t be a good idea for that applicant to highlight his/her whiteness.

The white applicant may well resent that, especially in today’s world where there are too many lawyers and too few jobs. Would that resentment be justifiable? It sure looks like it.

But maybe your identity in this scenario is an asset that your white competitor doesn’t have. Perhaps, because of your life narrative as a person of color, you might bring perspectives to the practice that non-minorities won’t have. That’s bull, many might say. Okay. Question: Does the white applicant have an asset he doesn’t have to list on his resume? “If you’re going to bring up that ‘white privilege thing,’ I don’t want to hear it!” Oookay, then… Why don’t we watch the next episode of Game of Thrones?   You know, the episode where that white blond woman, what’s her name…Daenerys, right, liberates the dark slaves and then mingles with them, inspiring them to lift her up like she’s their rock-like savior in a mosh pit.

Let’s see what Kristymarie has to say about all this. A heads-up: When she mentions “covering” and “reverse covering,” she’s using lingo in Critical Race Theory: Covering is like, putting it crudely, saying to an African American, “You should try hard to act like a white person.” Reverse covering is like saying, “You should emphasize you’re an African American.”

“Should I Tell Them I Am Not White? Racializing the Resume

During law school, it is important to build connections and seek opportunities to stand out. In this process, identifying as a racialized and gendered candidate may be a double-edged sword. Although identifying as a minority may be an asset, highlighting one’s otherness nonetheless reinforces the line between candidates from the dominant culture and racialized and gendered candidates, further isolating them and blurring or erasing other facets of their identity.

Corporations are diversifying their workforces more rapidly than the law firms they hire.  Some clients demand that law firms they contract also strive for more diversity in their promotion practices. For example, Wal-Mart Stores pulled active work from two large firms that did not conform to Wal-Mart’s standards for diversity, even though they were exceeding work product quality expectations. To increase client satisfaction, many law firms are seeking to recruit more minorities.

Hispanics have suddenly become the “hot” minority. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the Hispanic population of the United States will double by the year 2050, reaching over 106 million. Simultaneously, in part due to the growth in the Hispanic population, Spanish is the most spoken non-English language in the United States. However, not all Hispanic candidates fit the “desirable candidate” mold. Critical race theorist Richard Delgado and critical white studies scholar Jean Stefancic highlight the differential racialization that these shifting hiring priorities may lead to. Different minority groups are racialized differently as the labor market changes. Racial or ethnic markers that may have once been undesirable may quickly become an asset.

Trying to stand out through one’s racial or gender identity may be a double-edge sword because a résumé emphasizing the candidate’s racial or gender identity may quickly relegate the candidate to the “no” pile based on the recruiter’s assumptions regarding her cultural and social capital or competence. Therefore, a Hispanic and bilingual candidate must make a choice. Option one: highlight her identity. Option two: cover throughout her résumé to avoid being rejected because of the recruiter’s assumptions.

Option one may quickly lead to “reverse covering,” signaling or highlighting her otherness. An example of reverse covering is when a woman is required or expected to act or dress in a feminine way. Similarly, a Hispanic candidate is considered desirable if she fulfills the stereotypical expectation: being bilingual.

Option two is perilous. Before choosing to bury her otherness to get the job, the candidate must determine whether she would even like to venture into a workplace where her otherness will render her unqualified without further examination. While the legal market is a different arena, I believe the story of José Zamora is illustrative. Zamora’s story went viral in 2013 after he sent hundreds of résumés each week seeking employment and did not get a single response. Zamora decided to cover by removing the “s” from his first name, and resubmitted his résumé to the same companies for the same positions, now as “Joe Zamora.” A week later the responses started rolling in.”

 

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #14 Interview with Dan James, Former National Head Coach, USTA Wheelchair Tennis

dan jamesInterview with Dan James, Former National Head Coach, USTA Wheelchair Tennis

My book is largely about the life narratives of remarkable athletes. I’ve described the vital network of communities that support and produce them. Coaches, of course, play an important role in grooming our athletes, once the communities have moved a once traumatized person out of the dark places and shadows and into the light of public spaces. Here, via a Q&A, I devote the following pages to the role of the coach, and in particular to the role that Dan James, the former national head coach of USTA wheelchair tennis, has played in developing the sport. I first met him in the 2015 Cajun Classic. He’s a classy guy.

What was your playing career before you started coaching?

I was really lucky to grow up in Northfield, Minnesota, a big tennis town, especially in the 1970’s and 80’s. Northfield is home to St. Olaf’s and Carleton colleges. There were tennis courts all over the place. But it was Jim Holden, my high school tennis coach, who really contributed to the thriving tennis atmosphere in the town. He coached community tennis in the summers and developed an amazing juniors program.

My father, Ron James, played college tennis at Luther College in Iowa, and I started going to the courts with him when I was five years old—I still have my first racquet: a wooden Bancroft!  Tennis is something that I shared with my dad. The sport helped us bond together throughout our lives.

By the time I was ten years old, I started playing in junior USTA tournaments. I got my first rankings in 12-and-under play. In the northern section, I was as ranked as high as No. 5 in singles and No. 1 in doubles.

I was always a big kid for my age. As early as age fourteen, I became a “serve-and-volley” player. That’s how I played my whole career. I was a naturally aggressive athlete. Besides, I didn’t like hitting twenty balls for a point. So I would try to end the point early.

I was recruited to play at Gustavus Adolphus in College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Steve Wilkinson, the coach there, kept his eye on me in my youth play. It was a super opportunity for an eighteen-year-old kid to be a student athlete at a wonderful school. And I mean student athlete, not athlete student. Coach Wilkinson was great in that regard. He wanted you to be not just an athlete but a scholar as well. His focus was on service to others. He, along with my high school coach Jim Holden—who taught me to be a gentleman on the court—ended up being one of my best mentors throughout my career.

How did you get started with wheelchair tennis?

It started with Rolf Jacobson, my good friend and mentor. He was my doubles partner the summer of 1980, when I was ten years old—we had been playing in the doubles leagues for years. He got cancer the following fall and lost both of his legs. I reconnected with him the summer of ’89, just after my freshman year in college, when I volunteered at the “Tennis and Life Camps,” programs that taught life lessons and the importance of stewardship. Rolf taught there and that’s where I first hit with him when he was in a wheelchair. He made wheelchair tennis a comfortable thing for me.

In my early twenties I got tired of playing competitive tennis but I still loved the sport. Wheelchair tennis helped me look at the sport through new eyes, a new challenge to relearn the sport I had been playing my whole life. I began playing with a group of recreational wheelchair tennis players, about eight of them at the time, and they adopted me.  They became my teachers and taught me the sport. They were an incredible influence in my life and I owe so much to them. They helped me see disability as an opportunity rather than a deterrent. I fell in love with the sport. The wick was lit. I needed that at that point in my life.

 Was there a point when you knew coaching wheelchair tennis would be a lifetime passion?

Absolutely. It happened when Randy Snow came to Minnesota to do a clinic in 1993. I went because I was the local wheelchair tennis volunteer coach. I have to say I was star struck. At the time there were two big names in wheelchair tennis, Brad Parks, who started the sport, and Randy Snow, the top player. Randy had the type of personality that just exploded. He was a magnet. Everybody loved Randy Snow. He asked me to do a drill, and I was incredibly intimidated. I was like, “I don’t want to do that in front of Randy Snow. Are you kidding me?” So I think I just ran a basic mobility drill. But I did it with all the energy and enthusiasm of a three-year old kid and he was drawn to that—we created an instant friendship. He based his decision to adopt me more on my energy and enthusiasm than on my skills at the time.  In the world of wheelchair tennis, he became one all my all-time best mentors, teaching me the skills and requirements needed to play at the elite level.  He gave that to me as an incredible gift.

Getting back to the drill, after I ran it, he told me two things. The first was, “You know, Dan, if I could stand up I would kick your ass.” Hah! Second, he said he wanted me to be part of his national camp staff, which was a wheelchair tennis conglomerate of Veterans of America as well as the USTA. They essentially were the sponsors of Randy Snow’s national camps. He put together a staff of twelve people, which included Brad Parks, Nancy Olson, who in 1992 was No. 1 in U.S. women’s wheelchair tennis, as well as Coach Val and his wife Marsha Moore, the first prominent able-bodied coaches of wheelchair tennis. The Moore’s taught me how to be an able-bodied coach in a wheelchair tennis world. At tournaments, Nancy would teach me movement patterns.

I was so lucky to travel around the country with them from 1994 to 1999. I had the top coaches in wheelchair tennis instructing me. They didn’t have to do that. They chose to do it. They became my mentors, and taught me something critical: Wheelchair tennis is not “wheelchair tennis.” It tennis, plain and simple. They gave me the gift of removing “disability” from wheelchair tennis. That didn’t mean that I ignored the realities of disabilities. As a coach, through trial and error I had to figure out what would work for each athlete, given his or her physical impairments. For example, I had to learn the difference between, say, a spinal break at T4 and one at T12. What does it mean to have abs and not have abs. Every person, even if they have the same medical diagnosis, will manifest themselves differently on the court. You have to coach each player to their disability. I remember that I had a T12 and a T4 at a local program. When I started, I was trying to coach them in the exact same way. And it was horrible. They had to teach me. “Hey, as a T4 I can’t do this.” But what does that mean? “Well, as a T4 I don’t have these muscles. So I can’t lean forward. Or I can’t reach up.” Okay, now I understand that and I will coach you to what you can do. That had to be a learned process. It wasn’t inherent.

When did you start your professional career as a wheelchair tennis coach?

From 1996 to 1997, I left the tennis world to get a “real job.” I had to be an “adult,” if you will. I worked at Target’s corporate headquarters in Minneapolis as a merchandising analyst. The company was amazing, but not for me. I became miserable, and I discovered what I was not.

After I left Target, I ran into Jon Rydberg. He was fifteen years old in Minneapolis when I started wheelchair tennis—it was his second day of wheelchair tennis and my first. As a wheelchair tennis competitor, he climbed to as high as No. 11 in the world and became a Paralympian. He told me that the USTA had created a position for a hitting partner (e.g., warming up players before matches) with the World Team Cup—the equivalent of the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, and encouraged me to apply. I said, “No, I shouldn’t. I’ve been out of it for a year. They’re not going to look at me.” But he convinced me to apply. Before I knew it I was a hitting partner with the four teams—men’s, women‘s, and quads (they added juniors in 2000)—at the 1998 World Team Cup in Barcelona.

In 1999, I joined the coaching staff at the Lakeshore Foundation, a non-profit athletic center in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s one of the few places in the world that attracts top athletes with disabilities from around the world. In fact, it became a Paralympic training center. There, I got exposed to the diversity of opportunities for athletes with disabilities.

In fact, the gentleman who recruited me, Scott Douglas, was at one time a top ranked wheelchair tennis player—doubles for the U.S. team. Not only was he a lead player but he was a leader in professionalizing the sport. He created the World Challenge tournament in Birmingham, the first elite-level tournament in the world. It became a beacon for wheelchair tennis as a professional event.

The Lakeshore Foundation was one of the only places where you could coach wheelchair tennis and get a salary. My experience there was amazing. I was exposed to all of the Paralympic sports. It was like I was in “disabled sports grad school.”  I joined the center with the ultimate goal of coaching Team USA in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney. I reached that goal. It was awesome. At that point, I felt I was home. I was a professional tennis coach. I was overjoyed.

 When did the USTA become involved in wheelchair tennis?

Brad Parks, of course, spearheaded the creation of wheelchair tennis beginning in 1977. In 1998, the USTA took the sport over, hoping that integrating it into the USTA would help it spread. In 2003, the USTA created the position I now have, that of product manager of high performance wheelchair tennis. At the time, Tina Dale from Florida was the chair of the wheelchair tennis committee, whose mandate is to ensure programmatic opportunities throughout the country. She fought tirelessly to create the position along with David Schobel. It wasn’t easy.

I’m a full-time USTA employee, and the wheelchair tennis personnel is comprised of 2 ¼ people working full time. It’s huge, right? But you have to start somewhere! And let me tell you, I am one of the most fortunate guys in the world. I’ve headed camps with high-performance players and as well as World Team Cups. Just as important for me, though, is doing grassroots-level camps around the country, and junior camps.

How does support for U.S. athletes differ from athletes in other parts of the world?

First of all, pro sports in the U.S., including wheelchair tennis, receive no government funding. The USTA, of course, does fund players. But if you look at other countries, Japanese players are funded by corporations. The Dutch players have their own foundations. The U.K. has ten times the budget—via lottery funding—than the U.S. for both the Paralympics and Olympics.

Some Western European players are making six figures. But the American players are struggling to break even. This won’t change unless and until we get more media coverage in the U.S. The media coverage of disabled sports in other countries is exponentially better than it is here. Bottom line: sponsorship dollars are based on media coverage. We’re making progress in the U.S. This year for the first time we’ve had ESPN 3 cover the U.S. Open Wheelchair Competition.

I’m not an expert on media coverage of sports. But I think there’s a cultural difference between the U.S. and other countries. In this country we have tons of cable channels. Producers are very careful about what they choose to cover. If they don’t think they can sell commercial time, they won’t cover the sport. The problem with wheelchair tennis is that it’s still thought of as a “feel-good story” rather than a legitimate sport. We have to turn that around so that the sports story about the athlete comes first, followed by the inspirational back story.

Let me put it another way. Esther Vergeer of the Netherlands was the world’s No. 1 wheelchair tennis player for fourteen years. She went ten years without losing match. She was a great T.V. personality and was regularly on talk shows. And she was treated as a sports star rather than a wheelchair tennis star. In the U.S., we don’t treat our wheelchair tennis athletes as sports stars. In this country, we tend to gravitate to feel good stories. So we don’t treat wheelchair athletes as sports stars but rather as inspirational stars. This is a long-term transition that I would love to see happen. My dream is that ESPN will cover the American wheelchair tennis team. And when we lose, they give us a hard time. “The U.S. wheelchair tennis team really bungled this one.” That’s when we’ll know we’ve made it. It’s about the sport. It’s not, “Hey, they tried. It’s just amazing that they’re in wheelchairs!” Well, no, we lost! That’s where I want the American media to be.

In another appendix, I cover wheelchair tennis in developing countries. But I understand you’ve been involved with that effort. Can you tell us about it?

 The ITF runs the Wheelchair Development Fund. Its purpose is to go into developing countries and introduce the sport, focusing on basic skills. The Fund’s people train the trainers, coaches and therapists. They also work with governments. The ultimate goal is to help people with disabilities to become more productive citizens. The Fund works in a good number of countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Ghana.

I went to Tanzania in 2006. It was my first time traveling to a developing country. The shock and awe value of that was overwhelming. I worked with the Minister of Sport. The government’s goal was to get people with disabilities out of their homes and into the public—families were hiding them.

I’ll never forget my experience in Moshi, Tanzania.  I had a group of about thirty people out there trying out playing tennis in wheelchairs. Lots of fun. Great energy. But there was one girl who looked like she was miserable. She looked like she hated me. And throughout the day I tried to engage her to get her to smile. About two-and-half hours into the session I finally did. And she had a blast! She was laughing and joyful. At the end, I was leaving with my interpreter and a woman came running up to me yelling and crying. I was very fearful that I had done something wrong.  My interpreter spoke to the woman and his jaw dropped. He said, “Mr. Dan, that young girl hasn’t smiled in five years. She had barely left her house. And this is the first time in five years that she had been happy.” So for me, what mattered was that wheelchair tennis created a vehicle for that young girl to be happy.

What is the future of high-performance wheelchair tennis in the United States?

Wheelchair tennis has no “hub” like able-bodied tennis at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The USTA focuses instead on funding for elite players. I’m not that concerned about the numbers. We have a good group of juniors coming up the ranks. I’m proud that the juniors won the World Team Cup in 2015. The real challenge for high-performance tennis is affordability. To get to the top of the ranks you have to travel the world. It’s not like wheelchair basketball, where you can reach the top without stepping foot outside of the U.S.

I’m confident that the sport will grow both in its professionalism as well as notoriety. But, again, my biggest concern is that while we pursue greater success, we have to be careful not to price athletes out. There may be twenty to thirty players around the world with a lot of notoriety, and they get treated like rock stars. But thousands of others don’t have enough money to practice every week. We have to think long term. Let’s not forget the local programs, the local players who need support. And as we do that, we have to continue our outreach efforts to underserved communities.

What have been some of the most memorable moments for you as a coach? 

The first time that one of our players won the Paralympic gold medal. I watched as the U.S. flag went up and as they played the national anthem. That moment of knowing how hard our athletes have worked, what they’ve done, what they’ve sacrificed. That moment to see them on the court in front of the crowd, to see the flag, to hear the national anthem, yeah, that’s something that will stay with me forever.  It’s a culmination of just being so honored to be representing your country, it’s a culmination of a lot of hard work. An amazing moment.

What has coaching wheelchair tennis done for you?

In so many things in life, there are grey areas. Coaching wheelchair tennis is not one of them for me. I’ve been part of people’s journeys to re-enter life. I’ve seen guys bottom out, and then, through wheelchair tennis, realize that their lives aren’t over. I’ve watched them start that first push forward. Nothing is a greater honor than to be part of that journey.

On a personal side, the most fulfilling part of my work can be summed up in one word: People. My wedding party was filled with people who were part of wheelchair tennis. I’ve met wonderful people from all over the world because of the sport. The wheelchair tennis community has become my family. There is no top dog. We’re a family trying to do the same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

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.”

 

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #11 Jim Pfeffer: The Tennis Pro Who Loved KitKat

17362767_1273127996140491_9074616108585345263_nIn my previous post, I introduced you to Alan Klaus, a fellow whose life narrative would take him to Kansas City, the town where Brian would encounter the trauma of becoming a paraplegic. Here I introduce you to one Jim Pfeffer, who along with Alan, would become an integral part of, and give meaning to, Brian’s life narrative. Here’s the continuation of chapter three of my book:

About 663 miles northeast of Beatrice, Nebraska lies Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan, known for its construction of World War II submarines. There, one Jim Pfeffer began his trajectory in tennis in 1964 when his mother, thinking he needed more to do in the summers, signed him up for four tennis lessons. She had no clue, of course, that nudging her twelve-year-old to play the sport would ultimately result in a passionate tennis pro, whose commitment to the person holding the tennis racquet was just as important as teaching him how to play—whether on his feet or in a wheelchair.

Jim’s Narrative        

Jim enjoyed sports but tennis was not first on the list when he was a kid. He loved basketball and football—he was crazy enough to go the epic battle at Lambeau Field between the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys in 1967, a game that would be dubbed “the Ice Bowl” because of the game time’s temperature of -15 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of -48. I just can’t wrap my head around that . . .

Four tennis lessons. That’s right, FOUR. That’s all the twelve-years-old needed to eventually become a beloved club tennis pro. You see, Jim was a visual learner: He regularly ran home from high school, bought M&Ms and KitKat at the corner store, and then situated himself near the school’s tennis courts to watch the high school team play. That was enough for the candy lover to start teaching the game at a rec center in Manitowoc when he was sixteen. From there, the shy kid (scarred for life after attending the Ice Bowl?) grew into a confident young man who never looked back. While in college he coached summer camps all over the country, including a couple of summers at Hotchkiss, the elite prep school in Connecticut. Tennis was booming in the U.S. and Jim was caught up in it, at one very memorable point getting to meet Arthur Ashe in 1968, the U.S. Open Champion that year.

Jim moved to Kansas City in 1976 with his first wife. After a traumatic divorce, “the lowest part of my life,” his life blossomed. On the personal side, he married again, 2016 marking thirty years of marriage to his wife, Jane. And he has four grandchildren to boot. On the professional side, soon after he arrived in KC he landed a job with the Barry Brooke Tennis Club and taught there for seventeen years. Once in a while, he saw this fellow Alan Klaus on the courts. The guy was pretty good. Jim didn’t coach Alan—he didn’t need coaching—but he saw him now and then at the club’s social functions.  “Hey, Alan.” “Hey, Jim.”

******

Jim Meets the Roadrunner

In 1996, most of Barry Brooke’s members, including Alan, left for the newly-built Northland Racquet Club, with Jim as the head tennis pro. Soon after setting up shop there, Jim started a “hit and run” clinic on Saturday mornings. One morning, a fellow by the name of Brian McMillan showed up to play. “He was like a road runner. He ran down everything.”

And then the road runner disappeared . . .