Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #16 The Lousy Student

Chapter Five

Wichita’s “The Air Capital Classic”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?






“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.