Category: Wheelchair + Tennis = Life

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 6 The tournament idiot

Here’s the last excerpt from chapter two of my book. It’s about the Cajun Classic’s tournament idiot.

My first match in the C division was against Troy Eap, an easy going guy in his 30s who hailed from Upper Darby, PA.  He became a paraplegic in 2009 after a 1,200 pound slab of granite fell on him and crushed his spine. (How long did it take him to become easy going after such a horrendous accident?) I should’ve been nervous as I was taped up and strapped into the wheelchair. Actually I should’ve been throwing up. Prior to that match, I had never played a full set of tennis in a wheelchair. What the hell was I doing playing in one of the biggest, most prestigious tournaments in the country?

I was clueless. And when you’re clueless, you don’t feel fear or embarrassment.

At that point in my tennis career, it took me about half an hour to prepare for a match. A volunteer had to help me with everything. Let me take a moment to tell you about these great folks. They’re men and women and boys and girls who’re critical to running the tournament, especially one the size of the Cajun Classic. You start with the organization that puts the whole thing together. For the Cajun Classic, it’s the Baton Rouge Wheelchair Tennis Association, an all-volunteer, non-profit outfit that evolved from trauma: In 1983, a tennis coach’s godchild became a quad after being in a car accident and tennis became a way to help the kid cope with her transformed body.

Then you have the tournament director who coordinates the whole event and all of the volunteers. Jennifer Edmonson, the Cajun Classic’s director, works with a committee of volunteers who in turn coordinate the work of all the other volunteers. In the big tournaments, there’s also a person who’s a conduit for information between the director and the players, especially relating to logistics such as gathering information from the athletes about flight arrivals—Marilu Major is that person at the Cajun Classic. The volunteers “in the trenches” range from persons who serve food to the athletes to mostly kids who fetch balls during the match. It’s not uncommon to have volunteers who are nursing or physical therapy students. For some, it’s the first time seeing the game and working with wheelchair athletes.

Interestingly, virtually all of the volunteers at the tournaments are able-bodied. Why is that? Hmmm . . . Maybe there’re practical reasons. For example, it might be difficult for a person with a disability to serve food to the athletes. If I were to try that, half of the food would end up on the floor because of the severe weakness in my hands. But would paraplegics have the same problem? I doubt it. When you really think about it, a person with physical challenges could do most of the things an the tournament, including fetching balls.

So what gives? Well, even though most of us could do the stuff, it may take longer for us to do it. I could tape a serving spoon to my hand, but scooping out jumbalaya to a hundred people would take longer than it would for servers without my physical challenges. Those of us with disabilities—I’ll use “disabilities” and “physical challenges” interchangeably—know that doing activities of daily living may take three times longer or more to accomplish than our able-bodied friends. In the morning, an able-bodied person can hop out of bed when the alarm sounds and jump in the shower within a minute. A paraplegic may have to use a “transfer board” to move from her bed to the wheelchair, and use the board again to transfer from the wheelchair to the shower chair. This takes time, much more than a minute. An able-bodied person or a para can button a shirt in seconds. I have to use a “buttoner,” an assistive device that hooks the button and pulls it through the button hole. Sometimes it takes me literally five minutes to deal with one button. All of this is to say that although persons with physical challenges could do most of the things at tournaments, cumulatively the additional time required to do those things would slow the tournament way down, which would be a real problem when you’re trying to pack a tournament into just a few days. But it’s not as if the organizers turn away volunteers with disabilities. Within any possible pool of tournament volunteers, only a very small fraction would be persons with disabilities.

In a way, the able-bodied/challenged-bodied dichotomy is useful for another important reason: It gives volunteers an opportunity to do something that’s meaningful for them. Perhaps one person does it because she’s a therapist and profoundly supports, and wants to contribute to, an event that celebrates the human spirit. Another does it for profound religious reasons. Yet another volunteers out of civic duty. And perhaps there are those who think wheelchair tennis rocks and want to see it up close. I say, right on to all of these motivating factors! All the tournament’s participants get something really valuable out of it that can’t be quantified in many cases. And it’s not pity, whether of oneself or others. Besides, if I can get an extra brownie out of a volunteer, awesome!

Getting back to my first match, I needed help with just about everything. Sports wheelchairs don’t have brakes, so someone had to hold the chair while I literally fell into it—once I bend my knees I go into a freefall because of the extreme weakness in my upper legs. After I got the right sitting spot on the chair, someone had to tighten my lumbar brace around my lower trunk. I did this because my trunk muscles are weak—but not paralyzed. Without the brace, back then at least, I would wreck my back after repeatedly trying to turn the chair on a dime and swing the racquet during the match.

After my brace was in place, a volunteer took my Velcro belt and strapped my hips tightly to the chair. Next came my feet. The footplate is underneath me. Because of my paralysis below the knees, a volunteer had to take another Velcro belt and secure my feet tightly to the footplate. Then I put a baseball glove on my right hand with a tacky palm to give me a good grip on my rims. Finally came the racquet and the taping procedure I told you about. Once that was done, I always prayed that I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. Talk about panic!

When Troy and I were both ready, we rolled to the middle of the net, where the ref explained the format–the best two out of three sets wins–and tossed the coin to determine who would serve and receive. Troy won the toss and he elected to serve. The warm-up before the match should’ve given me a clue that I was facing imminent disaster. I missed almost every ball he hit to me. If I did hit it, it went sailing to Beijing or somewhere close to it. If the ball didn’t come straight to me, I could hardly move my wheelchair to get to it. But I had no fear. I wasn’t embarrassed.

As we warmed up, I kept running the fundamental strategy of wheelchair tennis through my head. If you look at able-bodied tennis, most of the balls are struck at the baseline or a bit further back. If your opponent hits the ball to the right side of the court, you move quickly to the ball, return it, and, in most cases, return quickly along the baseline to the center of the court. If a short ball comes over the net, you get to it, return it, and volley the next one or, depending on where you are on the court, haul ass back to the baseline at the center.

You use the same principles in wheelchair tennis, but now you have to maneuver the chair, not your legs and feet. So the spot at the center-court baseline is called “the hub.” That’s where you want to be most of the time. If the ball comes to your left, you have to push yourself to the ball and, if you’re a lefty, return the ball with a forehand and then spin your chair to the inside of the court and return to the hub. If you’re right-handed, after you return the ball with a backhand, you spin yourself to the outside of the court and return to the hub. Rarely will you see wheelchair players move into the court for a volley. You only do that when you’re absolutely certain you can get to the ball and put it away. It’s simply too easy for your opponent to lob the ball over you—you can’t jump out of your chair to get the height you need to reach the ball. And unless you’re superfast on the court, there’s no way you’ll get to the ball. The strategy of staying back is especially evident in wheelchair tennis doubles. In the able-bodied game, if you’re serving, your partner will position herself close to the net for the volleys. You won’t see that much in wheelchair tennis. Both players, especially the less skilled, will remain at or behind the baseline.

I don’t remember much after Troy’s first serve. My mind went blank and I forgot everything, much like what happened when I was first called on in law school. He had pity on me, I suppose, because the match finished minutes after it started, 6-0, 6-0. Why prolong the torture? People who watched the carnage might have said, “What in God’s name is that fool doing on the court?” I might have proclaimed in my best lawyer-turned-professor-turned-wheelchair-tennis-player full-throated voice of conviction, “I am Superman!” Then I might have rolled to the stands and autographed tennis balls offered to me by stunned fans. “Look what I got, mom, a tennis ball signed by the tournament idiot!” Yeah . . . clueless.

I was similarly clueless in my consolation match, losing 6-0, 6-0 to my opponent, who constantly asked me if I was alright. But I didn’t stop there. I also lost my doubles match, 6-0, 6-1. I was matched up with Frank Johnson, a Desert Storm veteran from Philly. A single-leg amputee, he was massive, with a commanding height from his wheelchair. That guy could move. I told him to go for the balls I couldn’t get to, which meant virtually all of them. I could’ve eaten a pizza during the match.

But I was having the time of my life. The best on-court experience was my Seniors B/C Doubles match with my partner—the tournament paired me up–Pat Mulvihill, a sixty-five-year-old Vietnam vet from Natchez, Mississippi. Throughout the tournament, I frequently heard people mention him with great fondness. When I finally met him, I could see why.  Just hours before the match, I wheeled up to him and introduced myself. He shook my outstretched hand with a big, welcoming grin. “So you’re the one!” he said in a thick southern drawl. I didn’t know whether he meant that I was his doubles partner or that he had heard I was the tournament idiot. Probably both. Pat lost both of his legs in 1970 when he stepped on a booby-trap during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. A number of years later, when wheelchair tennis came on the scene, he picked up a racquet and fell in love with the game. He told me proudly that he had played in every Cajun Classic—twenty-six years of the tournament. Wow.

We played our match in the evening. It was my first ever wheelchair tennis doubles match. And I had no clue what to do. What little training I had was playing singles. When it was my turn to serve—at that time I used an underhanded serve, I rolled to the middle of the baseline. “Hold it,” Pat blurted out. “You’ve never played doubles, have you?” “Uh . . . no, Pat,” I said in my best tournament idiot voice. With a twinkle in his eye, he showed me how in doubles you have to serve from a wider angle to get the best coverage of the court. “Got it! Thanks, Pat!” “No problem, my friend! Noooo problem! Let’s get ‘em, partner!” Of course, playing out wider made no difference. I continued to flail. But Pat kept encouraging me to stay in the game. We lost. After the match I said, “Pat, this was so much fun. Thanks for putting up with me. I would be honored to play with you again!” “Absolutely, my friend! Just keep at it. Your game will get better!” What a guy.

That was the only time the tournament paired me up with him. Hmmm . . That reminds me of a recent tournament where I was paired up with a French Canadian. That itself spelled trouble. I first saw him at the Cajun Classic. And I’m sure he saw or heard of the tournament idiot. When I saw this fellow at the recent tournament, I approached him and, in my best idiot voice, introduced myself and said I looked forward to playing with him. The first thing he said to me was, “Are you any better?” Like I said, he’s a French Canadian. And I’m the tournament idiot.

The Bayou Boys, my two youngest brothers, Pat and Carlos, came to my matches. Lana, Pat’s partner, made it to a couple as well. I warned them about my game, but they jokingly said they came to the tournament for the good food—and it was really good Cajun stuff according to them. Carlos spent most of the time taking photos of me with his expensive camera—he’s become a great photographer. With his skills, some of the photos of me in action looked like I actually knew what I was doing. Meanwhile, Pat, who inherited my father’s humor, supplied me with a stream of funny one-liners to help me keep my spirits up as I was getting pummeled. Both bro’s are mind-bogglingly good cooks. During a long break in the tournament, we went to Pat’s place and feasted on smoked salmon, boudin sausage, and bottles of red wine while we talked fondly of the glory days.

The days when I played football, ran track, and played tennis for my high school. The days when I took for granted how exquisitely the human body is wired to do so many things for you, from taking a simple step forward to swinging a tennis racquet. The days when I was invincible. . . and not the tournament idiot.


Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 5 “You can walk!” Sorry?

Here’s the next excerpt from chapter two of my book. It continues the narrative relating to my experiences at my first tournament, the Cajun Classic in Baton Rouge Louisiana.  It’s about walking:

The tournament’s first logistical task was to get 125 athletes, many of whom were from abroad, from the airport to the tournament site, the Lamar Tennis Center, a twenty-court facility at a YMCA complex in Southwest Baton Rouge. The tournament’s organizers asked the athletes to provide their flight information so that wheelchair-adapted vans with volunteer drivers could be at the airport to pick up them up. Like I said, one of the factors the ITF takes into account in sanctioning a particular tournament level is the availability of transportation. This is especially important for ITF 1 tournaments because of the large number of international players. Unless they have an able-bodied companion, such as a coach—a number of the European players travel with a coach—they can’t rent a car. Even if they could, given tight budgets, having tournament-provided transportation really helps keep down the overall costs of participation. A number of internationals told me they struggle financially to play in the tour. When you get into the lettered divisions, especially in smaller competitions, tournament-provided transport might not be that crucial because a good number of players drive to the tournaments with their parents, partners, or friends.

Unlike most wheelchair tennis athletes, I’m ambulatory, using a cane when I have to, like when I’m taking a long walk outside or dealing with uneven ground. As I walked to baggage claim with my tennis bag, I saw a bunch of other athletes who arrived at about the same time. They were all in their “day chairs,” as opposed to their sports wheelchairs, which they checked for the flight. Because of the camber, which makes it hard to get through most doors, virtually none of the athletes use their sports chairs unless they’re on the court. They push their sports chairs with one hand as they enter the court and then transfer from their day chairs.

When I saw them I immediately felt really awkward, maybe a bit guilty. I felt like an outsider. I could walk but they couldn’t. I was looking down at them, which felt like I was looking down on them. I felt like I had to get into my sports wheelchair ASAP. But doing that would itself be awkward.  I didn’t matter to me. The sooner I could get into the chair, the better. I wanted to be like them so I could be with them. Maybe they would talk to me. Maybe they would accept me. Maybe we would exchange smiles, become friends.

So when I got to the Lamar Tennis Center, I didn’t walk when I easily could have. No, I felt I had to be in a wheelchair at all times to fit in, even though I was in a sports wheelchair. As I rolled around the site, other athletes in their day chairs gave me a baffled look. “Why aren’t you in your day chair, mate?” I imagined one of the Brit players asking me. More likely, they were saying to themselves, “First time, is it? Get a clue, mate.” It was only after going to a number of tournaments that summer that I realized the “etiquette” was to stand up and walk if you can. I remember the first time I got out of my wheelchair and walked among athletes in their day chairs. One of them exclaimed, “You can walk!” I froze, not knowing what to say. Maybe “sorry?” What they were really saying, the subtext, was, “Don’t be stupid and sit in your sports wheelchair when you’re lucky enough to walk!”

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 4 The Intensive Care Unit: A narrative unto its own

This excerpt from chapter two focuses on the narrative called the Intensive Care Unit.

Let’s suppose you ask your friend to meet you at (not in) a closet somewhere. In that closet is a mop and a bucket. Nothing else. You ask your friend to describe what he sees. He looks at you for the longest time and says,

“You brought me here to describe a mop and a bucket in a closet? Really?”

“Yeah!” you say.

“Are you okay?” he asks with a very puzzled and concerned look.

“Absolutely! Now, come with me to the hospital!”

“Are you having a breakdown?”

“Maybe, but just indulge me, okay?”

“Yeeaahhh . . . sure . . .”

You take him to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit and ask him the same question.

“Uhhh . . . well . . . I see people. Is that what you want?”

“Great! Can you describe them?”

“Like their haircuts?”

“What are they doing there?”

“Oh, I got it now. Looks like some are doctors. Nurses, too. Then you got the people in the beds. They look sick. Like, really sick. Hooked up to a bunch of machines.”

“Is that it?”

“There’re some donuts on a table over there. Can I have one?”

“Do you see anything else?”

“Well, one has sprinkles on it. My favorite.”

Why am I writing what appears to be inconsequential dialogue? Okay, I’m a bored playwright who hasn’t had a play produced in a while. Putting that sad fact aside, your friend has done pretty well. Just as he accurately described what he saw in the closet—inanimate objects, he also accurately described the inanimate objects he saw in the ICU, especially the donuts. He could’ve gone on to describe other physical aspects of the floor he was on, such as the number of rooms and the nurses station.

Hey, wait a second, you say, he also described animate objects, the human beings. That’s right, he did. But he failed to describe the most important part of the ICU inhabited by human beings: its subtext, something he wouldn’t be able to do by merely walking into that part of the hospital.

Now you’re going to get all playwrightey hoytie toytie on me, you grumble. Well, yeah. Deal with it. So subtext is an implicit meaning in language that doesn’t match what is said or written. It’s what lies beneath the words we use. We use subtext all the time whether we know it or not. Let’s take a familiar example. Let’s say your partner tries on a new outfit. It gives you great pause. She/he asks you the dreaded question, “Well, how does it look?” You freeze for what seems to be an eternity as you fear for your life and then croak, “Uhh  . . . you know . . . what’s most important is whether you like it, honey-goo-goo!” She/he then storms away vowing never to talk to you again because what you were really saying is that the outfit sucks and she/he looks terrible in it.

Yes, your friend did accurately describe what he saw on the surface. But, aside from the reactions we might have to what we see, from joy to horror, the visual appearance may be the least important and least interesting aspect of life. What lies beneath what we see is far more important and much more compelling, that is, the life narratives that inform who we are as human beings.  And even more compelling are the webs of interactions among human beings that create and shape the narratives.

With that in mind, let’s explore the ICU. When you enter the ICU, whether as a patient—that’s assuming you’re conscious—or as a visitor, you can see and even feel a place where life and death commingle in strange and frightening ways.

Let’s dig deeper. Intensive. Care. Unit. It’s a world unto its own with a narrative that reflects those three words. Intensive: An extreme degree of concentration on a very sick patient by doctors, nurses, therapists, lab technicians, and others. Care: The use of any and all forms of medical intervention, from medication to surgery, to keep the patient alive. Unit: Yes, it’s what your friend described, but more importantly, it’s a “space” within which a narrative lives, the content of which is informed by the people in it and their roles. The doctors, who visit the patient maybe once a day during rounds, direct the medical intervention. The nurses execute the doctors’ orders, and, unlike the doctors, stick around with the patient and help him or her get through the day or night. The lab technicians, vampires in scrubs, stab the patient with needles to draw blood. Family and friends worry. The patient provides the puzzle, the problem that needs solving. Without this perilously sick person, the ICU narrative wouldn’t exist.

Is there hope in this world, this narrative, of the ICU, even if it’s limited to the micro variety I’ve described? For sure the medical staffers hope their interventions will keep the patient alive and improve the situation so that she can be transferred to a step-down unit and eventually be discharged. Friends and family will have the same hope, but perhaps dwelling more on the hope the patient won’t suffer—and annoying nurses with their demands in this regard. The patient? Assuming she’s conscious, she’ll likely be in a state of shock, a state of disbelief that shuts down hope altogether.

Everyone brings their own life narratives to the ICU, which can collide with each other at any given point. For example, a family member may be a lawyer who went to law school because his father died due to a doctor’s negligence—he distrusts doctors to his core. He may well clash with a doctor who’s earned a stellar reputation in her field and believes to her core in the power of medical intervention, focusing on the patient, not the family or friends. Enters stage left the social worker who, among other things, tries to keep the peace, tries to manage the clash of subtexts.

So here I come. The puzzle, the problem that needs solving. I suppose I should’ve felt l was the most important person in the world. After all, without people like me the ICU and its narrative wouldn’t exist. Hmmm . . .

The first thing I noticed when they wheeled me into the ICU was the cacophony of the machines and their alarms that were keeping people alive—from heart monitors to ventilators. As the days in the ICU turned into weeks and months, the cacophony became a sort of symphony of sounds with its own peculiar rhythm.  I actually came to love those sounds. Had they stopped, I would’ve panicked. I’m not sure that can happen when you’re dead, though.

But I wasn’t dead yet. I was in the process of getting there. Why didn’t I wail or scream? Shock shuts you down, numbs you to prepare you for the transition to nothingness, the end of your life narrative.

Maybe I should’ve screamed at the top of my lungs. Because within hours of being admitted to the ICU the paralysis had crept up my waist and trunk and begun shutting down my lungs. My parents, Elaine and Pedro, were notified later in the afternoon as things got worse. They wanted to talk to me directly so they wheeled me to the nurse’s station and I told them in labored breath what was happening. They said they would drive up from Baton Rouge right away. It was if GBS gave me a time out to let me talk to my parents before it resumed its march up my lungs. It then took my throat, tongue, and mouth. Then even my eyes.

Within days, when it looked like my stay at hotel ICU would be for an extended period of time, they pulled the tube feeding me oxygen out of my throat and I was wheeled into the operating room where a surgeon cut a hole in the base of my neck—a tracheostomy—so that the ventilator could pump oxygen more directly into my collapsed lungs. Within days, the doctors had to cut a hole in my stomach to insert a feeding tube so that I wouldn’t starve to death. Within days, a heart surgeon went through my neck to put in a temporary pacemaker to keep my heart beating.

I was fighting for my life. “Booyah,” shouted Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I swear I saw it do a fist pump.

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 3 Sweat and two bounces

This is the next excerpt from chapter 2 of my book. Each chapter toggles between my life narrative before wheelchair tennis and the beginning of my journey in the sport. This post explains the game:

We descended into a beautiful, sunny day in Baton Rouge: upper 70s and low humidity. Perfect for tennis. It makes a lot of sense to hold that tournament in March. Holding it later in the spring and especially in the summer would be cruel and unusual punishment. Temperatures typically climb well into the 90s and stay there. But the killer is the high humidity. And playing on an asphalt outdoor tennis court makes things even worse. In the 2014 Australian Open, temperatures reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit before match play was suspended. Players were vomiting and fainting on the courts.

But the straight thermometer reading is not the most accurate way of measuring the danger zone. The Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), developed by the military in the 1950s, takes into account the temperature, humidity, wind speed, and exposure to sunlight. If your skin temperature, based on that measure, rises above 95 degrees, your body becomes increasingly unable to lose body heat through the skin. Eventually, your body organs shut down. You begin to melt. Not a pretty sight.

Quadriplegics know this risk well. Many can’t sweat because of a break in their spinal cords. This can happen in any number of ways. For example, a fellow athlete from Philly, Michael Sullivan, was enjoying a lovely warm day at a lake house with friends a number of years ago. A pier behind the house extended straight into the lake. Michael decided to cool himself by taking a dive into the water. Instead of diving from the end of the pier, he dove from its side. It seemed like a decent point to dive into; the lake was known for the quickness of its depth. What Michael didn’t know was that a portion of the pier running perpendicular to the main pier had been removed but not the supporting pylons, which couldn’t be seen from the pier. He dove in.


And in an instant, Michael was transformed into a quad. Now he can’t sweat because the line of communication between his brain and the sweat glands has been severed. When it gets hot, sweat helps us cool off, in part when the sweat evaporates. But, using the WBGT, when it gets humid, making it harder for the sweat to evaporate, and there’s no breeze to help evaporate the sweat, and it’s a sunny day, disaster looms for everyone, but especially for quads who can’t sweat–I can because I don’t have a spinal cord injury. That’s why you’ll be able to figure out who the non-sweating quads are on the courts by spotting their use of water sprays and wet cooling towels, among other things, to mimic sweat. If the tournament site has indoor courts, quads may be required to play there. This pretty much sucks for three reasons. First, because quads are segregated and removed from the rest of the tournament play. Fifth, because the indoor courts are stuffy. And B, because it’s harder to set up the ESPN crew indoors.

Getting back to the Cajun Classic, when I entered the complex, my eyes immediately were drawn to a tent where colorful flags from all over the world were flapping gently in the breeze. I hadn’t really appreciated until then the extent to which the tournament was truly international. There were athletes from countries all over the world: Australia (3), Belgium (2), Brazil (4), Canada (3), Chile (3), Colombia (1), Guatemala (1), France (7), Germany (2), Israel (2), Japan (2), Mexico (2), the Netherlands (4), Russia (1), South Africa (2), Sweden (1), and the United Kingdom (8). Pretty cool. I love just about anything international, especially IHOP. . .

The Cajun Classic is part of the UNIQLO Wheelchair Tennis Tour, which as of this writing is comprised of 160 tournaments in over forty countries, with $1.5 million in prize money. Wow! Over one . . . (picture Dr. Evil) . . . MILLION dollars! Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah! Hah-hah . . .hah . . . But Dr. Evil, the world’s number 1 male player in 2015, Novak Djokovic, raked in $21,646,145. You would have to jump down to the world’s number 15 player in 2015, Feliciano Lopez, to just about equal what the Wheelchair Tour sprinkles around its tournaments. The Cajun Classic offered $25,000 in prize money. Is this fair? That world-class tennis players in wheelchairs get not even pennies on the dollar compared to their able-bodied counterparts? (I really, really don’t like the “people with disabilities/able-bodied” dichotomy.)

What if we turned things upside down, or actually right-side up, and lived in a world where wheelchair tennis players enjoyed all the money and fame, and able-bodied players received hardly any recognition and struggled to finance their tournament play, let alone put food on the table? Wouldn’t happen because there’s no money in being an inspirational person with a disability. Besides, we do it for the love of the game! Wheelchair tread marks on a face are harder to remove than tattoos.

In its twenty-sixth year, the 2015 Cajun Classic is a “Category 1” tournament, one of six classifications sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), tennis’s world governing body. Among other things, the ITF sets the rules of the game, which are then put into play by national bodies, such as the United States Tennis Association (USTA). There are six categories of ITF-sanctioned tournaments, with the Grand Slams (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open) at the top of the pyramid and the Futures at the bottom. In 2015, a number of the other wheelchair tournaments met the ITF classifications—e.g., Pensacola Open (Category1), Indian Wells Tennis Garden Wheelchair Championships (2), Fall Southern PTR Wheelchair Tennis Championships (2), and the U.S. Open Wheelchair Championships (Super Series).

The tournament’s ITF classifications depend on a slew of requirements, such as transportation, the provision of free meals and water/sports drinks for the athletes, first aid availability on site, at least three days of competition, facilities to store the sports wheelchairs overnight, adequate shade, a repair station with an air compressor (for the wheelchair tires), an onsite players’ lounge, types of officiating, and prize money. The higher the tournament in the pyramid, the more requirements the organizers have to meet.

The first logistical task—sorry? Oh, right, how the game got started and how it’s played. The birth of wheelchair tennis goes back to 1976 when Brad Parks, an 18-year-old gifted freestyle skier, suffered a bad fall on the slopes and ended up paralyzed from the waist down. During his time in rehabilitation, he met wheelchair athlete Jeff Minnebraker and they came up with idea of playing tennis in a wheelchair. From there, wheelchair tennis exploded—at about the same time the game itself became wildly popular in the United States. In 1992, wheelchair tennis became a full medal sport at the Paralympics in Barcelona. Today, the game is played in more than 100 countries. Very cool.

To play competitively, you have to have a medically diagnosed permanent mobility-related physical disability that results in substantial or total loss of function in one or more lower extremities. For example, if one or both of your legs are paralyzed or if one of your legs has been amputated. If one or both of your arms are also similarly impaired you can qualify to play in the quadriplegic division. In the big tournaments, you’ll have the Open and Quad divisions, populated by virtually all of the professional international and U.S. athletes. Below those divisions are USTA-designated A, B, and C divisions, with A being the most seasoned players and C being the so-so players. At one time there was a D division for novices but that category is virtually gone. Instead, some tournaments will have a free novice event to attract new players. Frankly, I wish the USTA had a “gutter” division, which is where at the time of the Cajun Classic I believed I belonged.

How is the game played? Just like the able-bodied game, only wheelchair tennis players get two bounces instead of one before they have to strike the ball. The second bounce can be either in or out of the court’s boundaries. Did you (not actually you—just a straw person) call that a wuss rule, huh, did ya? Try getting into a wheelchair and play the game. You’ll be like a deer in the headlights and pee in your pants when the ball comes over the net at you. Actually, the really good wheelchair tennis players take it on the first bounce—and from seemingly impossible angles. When I first tried to do that, I peed in my pants. . .

Getting back to the rules, the wheelchair is considered part of the athlete’s body. So just like able-bodied tennis, if the ball comes over the net and hits any part of your wheelchair, you lose the point. When you do that to your opponent, you’re supposed to say “sorry” but secretly you loved it. Booyah! In your mind you do a fist pump.

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 2 Hope. What is that, exactly?

Chapter Two

Baton Rouge’s “Cajun Classic”

Hope. What is that, exactly? There’s the everyday kind of hope that we use to get through the day. I hope I can still get to work on time despite this horrible traffic. I hope Kip doesn’t show for the meeting because he’s a jerk. I hope they’re not cleaning the bathroom because I have to pee really badly! Except for maybe the last example, this type of hope, we can call it “micro hope,” doesn’t determine whether or not we’ll achieve our life’s goals. If most or all of our micro hopes are dashed, we might be having a bad day, well, maybe a really bad day, but in most cases we shrug it off and hope things will be better tomorrow.

Then there’s the kind of hope, we can call it “macro hope,” that helps us get through life and achieve our goals, the kind of hope that helps us weave the narratives of our lives. There’s lots of literature in the field of psychology that explores the concept of hope. A commonly cited definition is that developed by Charles Snyder and his colleagues: “a positive motivational state that is based on an interactively derived sense of successful (a) agency (goal-directed energy) and (b) pathways (planning to meet goals).”   In my case, if (a) I put my mind to it and stuck with it—agency, (b) I could get into law school, do really well, work for a judge a year or two, or practice in a large law firm for a few years—pathways, and then reach my goal of becoming a law professor who one day would make a difference in the lives of students, and, if I could avoid peeing in my pants every day, become a respected intellectual figure in my field.

My hope, my macro hope, would begin by moving in the summer of 1980 to Washington, D.C. to attend Georgetown University Law Center. But then Guillain-Barré Syndrome came along and began robbing me of a fundamental prerequisite to hope: control over my body. The paralysis started in my hands and feet. On the day I was admitted to the Bloomington Hospital, April 11, 1980, the paralysis continued its steady march up my legs and arms. At that point my only hope was that this evil, heartless, terrifying, creeping thing would relent, if only out of pity. It didn’t. I was having a very bad day.

From the emergency room, they took me to the pediatric unit since that was the only bed left in the general part of the hospital. As my breathing became more labored that day, they rolled my bed into the ICU. The room was small and narrow, not too far from the nurse’s station. It was, fittingly, a drab room, painted an industrial dull yellow, with a worn curtain for a door. There was a window that allowed in natural light but because it was at my feet, it seemingly had no function for me. It wasn’t a room with a view, so to speak. I should’ve complained. I could’ve gotten a free night out of it I suppose. . .

As soon as they had locked the bed in place, a nurse came into the room with a welcoming face that at first put me at ease, as if her smile was telling me that everything would be okay and that I would be strolling around Bloomington in no time.

Then she put the heart monitor on. With every lead pad she stuck on me I began to wonder whether I was reading her smile right. Maybe it was saying “welcome to hell.”

Say goodbye to hope, Enrique.