Interview 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.