An Op-Ed | My Experiences of Life, Tennis, and Adaptive Sport as an Amputee
Written By – Jeff Bourns
FORTY – LOVE
This piece is entitled Forty – Love, in two parts. The first, Forty, being that I turned 40 this year. That time when they say life begins and you go through your mid-life crisis. The second part comes from the lessons revealed to me through tennis and work in the community.
I was born with a congenital malformation to my right leg, and as a result became a below-the-knee amputee while I was still a toddler. I spent my early childhood in Belpre, Ohio, with my parents and two younger brothers. When I was 8, the family moved to Houston, Texas. That summer I had another surgery and became an above-the-knee amputee.
When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, organized adaptive sports were not common. My family and I were not even aware that they existed. To me, sports were something that I played with my friends and they were fun. In elementary school, I was often the kid who got picked last for the team, but I was able to keep up with my peers in any game or activity. Truthfully, most of my friends forgot that I was missing a leg and just saw me as their friend Jeff. I was just an average kid who enjoyed being active and exploring the world around me.
Sports have always been a big part of my life. I would play whatever sport was in season. If it was basketball season, I was out hooping; football season, I was tossing the pigskin, and with baseball I was on the mound or playing first base. Soccer didn’t really work out for me. In second grade I tried at the local YMCA. When I went to kick the ball it wasn’t the only thing that went flying — there went my prosthetic leg along with it! My leg was deemed a hazard, so I had to stop playing.
As for tennis, I was never really coached. I was never taught the lingo or strategy. One summer when I was 11, I was enrolled in Bart and Buck Bernstein’s tennis camp at the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s tennis courts. There, I was taught helpful pointers. My fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade summers I played Junior Team Tennis. I actually did not know I played JTT until a conversation at lunch with good friend Cindy Benzon in 2020. I just thought I was playing summer tennis. I played the fifth, sixth or seventh spot on my team (out of 12).
When I tried out for my junior high tennis team, I didn’t make it. I was confused. I beat or was ranked higher than four of the kids on the team. Kids can be mean. I was always used to stares and whispers, but it felt different coming from my peers. The next year the coach told me that I did not have to try out. Apparently — and I didn’t learn this until a couple of years ago — a group of parents and my mother had petitioned the school, saying I should have made the team because I was better than their children. I didn’t make the cut, but I’d been given a shot. Had I known I had that support, it would’ve taken some of the sting out of that moment.
Let’s fast forward to High School.
I was in the marching band (Clear Brook High School 1997; Go Wolverines). I am proud I was able to march in the band…with a euphonium…on grass and turf… in formation while playing the instrument (not an easy task for an amputee). I stopped marching my junior year and made the school’s tennis team. At the time, I did not want to bring any extra attention to myself. If I were singled out or made to feel embarrassed, I would cope using humor. I wish I’d had a mentor or someone like me to relate to. I had so much potential in all that I did, but at times I would get made fun of so I would goof off or do something to deflect the hurt I was feeling. Hurt and feelings of loss were very familiar to me during this time in my life. My senior year I got a note from the doctor excusing me from tennis cIass. I was still on the team, I just did not play. I was getting made fun of a lot and didn’t talk about it or know how to handle it. I graduated in 2000.
I was skimming through a magazine while Dan Morgan, my prosthetist for over 10 years, was repairing my prosthesis, and I saw information about other amputees competing in sports against each other. I can do that, I thought. I contacted Hanger Prosthetics, signed a contract, and Kevin Carrol made me my first sprinting prosthesis in the winter of 2001.
At the time, swimming and track and field were the only competitive standing adaptive sports offered. I chose to start swimming competitively but found myself more concerned with the female volunteers at these competitions than in living up to my own talent and potential. I did not take it seriously. I would go out the night before a meet, then jump in the pool the next day to compete, win my division by a pool length, and then talk with people about what we were doing that night. I saw those whom I was competing with, their families, their support systems, and couldn’t help but feel hurt and alone. It is critical for athletes’ families to support their child/brother/sister/friend during practice and competition. I watched many of those people succeed, and I believe that a strong support system had a lot to do with it.
Then an amputee tennis tournament was offered at the Endeavor Games in 2001. My friend J.B. Beale, also an above-the-knee amputee, and I were the only two athletes to enter. I did win. It was a great feeling to be successful at a competitive sport, but the greater good came from actually meeting true peers for the first time in my life. That emptiness that I had always felt was suddenly filled with acceptance and belonging.
I promised myself if another opportunity in adaptive sports presented itself, I would give it all I had. After competing in a few events here and there, I settled into a normal life. I was employed and raising a toddler, my son, Parker.
Somewhere around 2006 something went wrong. My back began to go out on me. It was the beginning of what would become a very dark time in my life and a place I don’t often like to revisit. However, I am still reminded of it everyday. I always knew I was “disabled” but never felt that way in the past. Oh, was I ever able to feel it 2006-13*It is kind of ironic that the path I would end up taking would have me confront the issue again, but in a different form. The first real friend I met besides Enzo Amadei, Executive Director of the TAP WORLD TOUR and the individual who started this worldwide effort to create a new competitive category of tennis, Adaptive Standing Tennis, when it comes to TAP; TAP is a Spanish term meaning playing from the foot up, or standing; was Jorge Castro of Portugal.
Between matches we would sit in a shaded area with a Babolat Chile banner behind us. — a little bit of foreshadowing there as well. We exchanged stories and Jorge told me that he had lunch with an engineer involved with a company that produced microprocessing knees. They discussed a new protocol to immediately replace a prosthetic knee when it malfunctions if the individual developed back problems, stemming from a case in the United States. Life is weird.
At the time, I was working as an assistant manager of a Stone Crab and Steakery Restaurant in Houston. The world doesn’t stop moving just because you are down and out. I did everything I could to keep pushing forward. Surgery was not recommended at that time due to pre-existing conditions that I had experienced as a child. As a child I was diagnosed with Tethered Spinal Cord Syndrome and had a tumor removed, which resulted in post-op spinal meningitis and a spinal cord injury. The doctors told me that due to my medical history, surgery could have many adverse effects. I became sedimentary.
I gained weight. I became very depressed. I kept looking at the four white walls around me. Asking why. Why me? Why now? Haven’t I already suffered and endured enough? I wasn’t able to participate in activities with my son as he was growing up. I had to watch him watch me suffer. I wanted to play catch with him. Ride bikes. Share in the sports I enjoyed as a child. It was a huge burden I carried around for a long time. It was a very dark period, but as the saying goes, some of life’s most important lessons are learned from pain. If I hadn’t had my son as motivation to get better, to be a part of his life, I’m not sure what would have happened to me. I knew I needed change. I was looking for something to get me in shape again, but I didn’t want to go to a traditional gym.
In 2011, I started to go to a facility in Houston that had adaptive sports equipment, a pool, a basketball court and tennis courts. The West Gray Metropolitan Multi Service Center saved my life. A guy named Chuck French was running the facility and gave me a tour on my first visit. It took me 15 minutes to build up the confidence to walk through those doors to meet him. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone is often difficult. I opened a new door and it has led to so many more opening.
Organized adaptive sports were becoming more popular. I got back in the pool and figured I would give things another go. I would always ask about programs for amputees, but most of the sports were for wheelchair users; amputees needed to use a wheelchair to play. This is when I first brought up tennis. Chuck and his wife, Lindsay, informed me that they did not have a tennis program for amputees, nor had they heard of one anywhere. I remember Lindsay telling me, “Jeff, that is something you can start up.” I was still young and didn’t fully understand what she meant, but it is why I am where I am today. They told me the center did have a wheelchair tennis class and I was free to go out and play with the class. The two years in that program with our coach Shirley were pretty great. I played standing, but it really didn’t matter. We all just played tennis together and had a great time. I made some great friends. However, as the other students in wheelchairs got to go off and compete in tournaments, I could not. I was not able to play tennis competitively against others with a physical disability unless I was sitting in a wheelchair.
In the following years, I began to fall and could tell I was losing motor function in both of my legs. I broke my wrist (scaphoid bone) in one fall, but the bigger break was while hopping to get some water from the kitchen one night. I felt a pinch in the back of my sound leg, and I collapsed straight down onto the distal end of my residual limb (amputated leg). I split my femur in 3 places. I remember waking up and having to hold my amputated leg while I drove myself to the hospital. I should have called 911. I could feel the bones moving around in my leg. Because I wore a prosthetic socket and got spared a severe fracture, I did not have to have any hardware attached to the break. I needed it to heal naturally. So I laid in bed for four months with my father coming to change the bag of ice on my leg once a day and brought groceries on occasion. All I could really do with my son was play video games while lying in bed. When I was finally cleared to wear a prosthetic leg again, I had some doctors go over some prior MRI’s of my spine. My spinal cord had been tethered again and I had some mess around L4-L5 that was at the root of my losing motor function and having chronic pain. I needed spinal surgery. I had the next one in 2013.
While in recovery I was able to start a non profit organization working with amputees in Houston: The Houston Amputee Society. We worked with networking amputees, advocacy, activities and held adaptive sport clinics. I had been kicking around the idea in my head for some time stemming from my experiences growing up and the impact of meeting others like myself. Prior, I did not see a lot of it in the community. With this organization, adaptive sports were part of it. I started to look more into tennis. I did not realize at this time my spinal cord had become tethered once again as I was losing feeling in my left foot. I developed a pressure ulcer I didn’t know about, and half of my heel had to be debrided. It is a pretty crazy experience watching your tissue and skin grow back. I developed endocarditis at the same time while my blood that was infected circulated back through my heart. The picture of my foot is pretty gnarly, but if you would like to see it you can check out the film “Tin Soldiers” on iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime.
In 2014, I was put in touch with Cindy Benzon. Cindy works for USTA Texas as a Tennis Service Representative adaptive/wheelchair tennis coordinator. Over lunch, we talked about starting an amputee tennis program. At that time, a few clinics were being held here and there around the States, but nobody really had anything in the works to develop competitive and recreational tennis for amputees using traditional tennis rules. Cindy had many questions, and we discussed how we would go about starting things up. We would have practice on separate nights from the wheelchair tennis program and cater specifically to growing tennis for amputees. She informed me that she has seen other amputees play in clinics and in a program based in Austin. They, however, were allowing two bounces and were really unsure how to grow things. I had to scratch my head on this one. I never had to play using two bounces or with a different colored ball. I also knew of many very active amputees who play tennis. After lunch we went across the street to West Gray, hit for ten minutes or so (I was wearing a protective boot on my left foot), and decided … Let’s start a program! Let’s incorporate tennis not only as a recreational/competitive sport for amputees but also as a sport to help the movements and mechanics of the body for those with a physical disability.I was selected to serve on a committee for USTA Texas. I was charged to assist with the growth and development of tennis for amputees.
A week before that practice, I learned I would need another spinal surgery. Motor function in my legs was going out very quickly. In January 2015, I had my last major spinal surgery. In April, we began holding practices. I would go out with a cane or on crutches and hit or toss balls to our students. My son, Parker, came to assist me. Slowly we started to have more coaches and participants. It was great for me as well because I was getting back in shape and through tennis began to get a lot stronger once again. In 2015 ,my spirits were at an all-time high.That September I was contacted by an individual from Chile about an International competitive circuit for amputees to play “stand up” tennis, the TAP WORLD TOUR. At first, I was undecided, but in November 2015 I registered and ended up bringing my good friend from high school Benjamin Emanuel with me. I went to Santiago and was the first American to compete in this new category of play. From here I met the director, Enzo Amadei, and we began talks of bringing this tour to the United States and entering a partnership together to grow competitive amputee tennis. They called it TAP. In Spanish it meant playing from the foot up. Not only did it include amputees but encompassed others with physical challenges such as cerebral palsy or hemiplegia playing tennis standing instead of using a wheelchair. When I got back, I was eager to share what I had learned. My friend Ben had also offered to start training me off the court to get in even better shape. The next tournament was held in Uberlandia, Brazil, in July 2016. Our category of play was and still is not a sanctioned competitive Paralympic sport. While many media outlets in South America pretty much already refer to it as one, the rest of the world seems to fall short here.
Shortly after the Tournament in Brazil, we began planning an international tournament in the USA with help from USTA Texas.The USA TAP OPEN. It was a huge success, turned a lot of heads, and really kick-started people’s ability to play and learn about this new category of competitive tennis. It was also great to meet so many other players from around the world. We had a total of 28 players from 13 countries. That year we were also allowed to set up a booth at a Gateway to Gold event at the University of Houston showcasing both adaptive standing and wheelchair tennis.
The inaugural International Adaptive Standing Tennis tournament in the United States took place in Houston, December 8-10, 2016. There are a few entities that would teach one-day tennis clinics in different cities. However, no tangible resources or backing was really in place. You have to leave something behind for people to stay engaged or have regular weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly programs or events to keep people participating. The question was just how.
Teaching amputees tennis was new to most tennis pros. Will players fall? Will they fall? Will they fall? Number one question. Sometimes yes, but not really. It is not a liability situation. Just teach them and learn from them in the process. It is just teaching tennis a slightly different way. I very quickly picked up information I learned from USTA meetings and with prior experience knew how to grow things. We needed to have either a clinic or a camp in a city where at least one advanced Adaptive Standing Tennis player was present, there was also the local head or member of the Community Tennis Association, an amputee support group or organization, and volunteers and tennis pros to learn and help support.
We had the #FSU crew in Houston at Bay Area Racquet Club. That is where my knowledge of the sport expanded immensely. Irwin Montalvo began coaching me in 2017. He trained me and taught me what a tennis coach would normally teach a student. Growing up, I did have coaches, but I never had a coach who taught me terminology with footwork, strategy in the game, and even different spins to put on the ball. I was athletic and knew the basics..
At times when I would be introduced in front of different personalities or people in the tennis world with a lot of clout they would often ask me a lot of questions that I had no idea how to answer, and it was very embarrassing. It was almost like a “fake it until you make it” kind of thing. I could play tennis exceptionally well on a prosthesis, but was never given advanced instruction. That began to change thanks to my good friend Irwin. Irwin never charged me and I did not have to pay a fee to play at Bay Area Racquet Club. It was a safe space for me where I had great people to be around, and I was really having fun playing tennis. Irwin, Carlos McIntyre, Jason Kedzierski, Jeff Bourns: the #FSU Crew. Endless gratitude to the Striesfeld Family, Eric and Rebecca. Thank you as well,Carlitos Fermin, for hitting with me when Irwin suffered an injury. I had some great hitting sessions with my friend Jeanne Le Roux as well.
Jason Kedzierski signed me as a Babolat Pro in November 2016. So I wore a new pair of the unreleased Propulse Furys during the 2016 USA TAP OPEN. It was an amazing feeling as it was to be featured on Babolat’s Instagram. Prior, I obtained sponsorship from Diadem Sports (thank you, guys), but was really just beginning to learn the ins and outs of brand sponsorship.
In 2017, because of the success of the USA TAP OPEN Tournament, it was a sectional goal to get two new programs started in Texas. We were able to connect the dots in San Antonio and held a clinic one morning. One of our former coaches, Alex, from our Houston program, helped facilitate the clinic and I invited my friend and fellow tour player Eric to come and instruct with me as well. We helped put the right people in contact for the Full Metal Racquets, an amputee tennis team based out of San Antonio, to be born. A national goal was also beginning to take shape to move the Houston tournament to the USTA National Tennis Campus that was then being built in Orlando, Florida.
My experience grew. I was invited to instruct a Paralympic Experience tennis event at the LakeShore Foundation Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. It was the first time, I think, that Adaptive Standing Tennis was included in a Gateway to Gold Paralympic Experience event. Paralympic Experience events are designed to introduce Paralympic sports to individuals who qualify and are instructed by adaptive athletes who have participated at a high level in the sport. Basically, it was for recruiting potential and future athletes. From my own experiences with these events it was not often, (it may be changing) instructors explain it how it is and inform participants how hard it is to become a Paralympic athlete. It can really be a big blow to one’s self-confidence after seeing how tough the competition can be, turning a competitor off to the activity instead of finding something fun to do that is a healthy outlet. My friend Karin did a great job explaining this to the participants. Karin and another instructor were going to teach the athletes in wheelchairs, and I was going to teach those who wished to play standing. I started with four or five in my group, but within 30 minutes it was down to one. It was my first real experience in learning about when to sense the need to adapt or change the format of what I was brought out to do. Some of the children may have been nervous about stepping out of their comfort zone, as I had experienced myself growing up, in trying something new. So I could have and should have jumped in a wheelchair myself and could have progressed the lesson to standing at a certain point. I learned a lot from it.
Shortly after that, the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship took place in Houston. It is held annually at River Oaks Country Club. I had taken part in the past two: one in 2015 and the other in 2016, helping with kids day and the USTA booth. The year prior I got to meet former USTA Chief Executive Officer Katrina Adams. In 2017, I was asked to play an exhibition match on stadium court. I was so excited and didn’t know what to expect. I remember getting to the courts with just enough time for my coach Irwin to warm me up.
I was a bit nervous. I did launch a few balls over the fence, haha. By chance, I went to the side to get some water and check my phone. Apparently, one of the players from the match currently being played had to retire due to injury. Our court time had been moved up. My phone was on silent. There was a message from Cindy telling me to get over to Stadium Court and that they were waiting on me. There wasn’t even time for me to run to the restroom. Coach grabbed my tennis bag for me and we hustled to the court. I changed into a USTA Texas t-shirt and got to walk through the tunnel and be introduced. It was a pretty unique feeling. I was introduced as the world’s ninth- or 11th-best player in my category. I forget which, but that is something we will talk about later.
We played doubles. I was paired up with a friend and wheelchair tennis player against two other wheelchair tennis players. Houston has sundry weather, and it was starting to drizzle a bit. We did not get to play a full set but still got some good court time in. A fun memory. I remember coming off of the court still needing to pee so bad but we had to take some pictures with the tournament announcer. It was staged, and we all took pictures holding a microphone pretending to talk into it.
These were the slow beginnings of a different battle that I would encounter, in my head. It would have been nice for each player to have been able to be interviewed, on air, and questioned as any other athlete would. I still had to pee. I had my USTA credentials around my neck, tennis bag, and made a break for the players locker room to use the restroom. I was stopped by security but I had credentials so I was let into the locker room. After relieving myself I stumbled across a guy and we started chatting. I got a few weird looks and a kind of “who is the guy” vibe was present but continued chatting. We talked about the Tour I played on and he wished me well. At the end I realized it was John Isner. He is a really nice down to earth guy. I met several other pros there as well. After I told them what I did and who I was they were all cool with me and offered support in our mission. That is the great thing about sport and why you read so many quotes about it being a great universal uniter. I was just a new face in a restricted or guarded area. After heading back to Stadium Court I was asked where I had been. The other players were signing tennis balls for kids who were watching. I said I was using the restroom and how excited I was to have met a few guys and how receptive they were towards me and adaptive tennis. I could tell I got in some hot water because the comment I got back was something along the lines of you should have not been in there. That is for the pros only. I laughed and didn’t respond and went to watch my friend Reilly play against Tommy Haas for a little bit. Later that day I thought to myself, reflecting, “OK, so if my name is being used in a certain context then why am I not able to use my own name in the same. Technically, and trust me, yes I do know the difference in levels of tennis, but by ability and circumstance, and for the goal of inclusion, which is what all are shooting for, I had every right to be in that locker room as well as the other tennis players that played with me. Does segregation still exist, haha. Really not funny but at the time things rolled off my shoulders a lot easier.
A staff leader at USTA Texas had a loss in the family and needed to take an extended leave from work. As a result I stepped in, not as an employee, but still trying to keep our goal of getting two programs started in Texas that year as well as planning for the 2017 USA TAP OPEN. I started to learn a lot more about cultural differences in 2017. My background in Adaptive Sports included track and field and a fairly good understanding of how athletes were classified. I also am quite knowledgeable in biomechanics and energy expulsion when it comes to amputees, depending on the level of amputation. I learned most of it in 2007 while doing research. Up to that point on the Tour, prior players with a single below the knee amputation (BKA) were being mixed in against above the knee amputees (AKA). Wow, was it ever difficult to try to get this rule changed! I think I have a few gray hairs on my beard attempting it, haha. In late August we were finally able to address the issue and it was changed once our section staff leader returned.
Then Hurricane Harvey Hit.
During Harvey I must have stepped in some water that was contaminated or something like that. I was having a lot of issues with my good foot stemming from an accident in the gym while my foot was masurated (wrinkled or damp with sweat). Because I had to wrap my foot to protect an ulcer that opened where my foot previously was debrided, it raised my foot and toes in my shoe. My toes now were rubbing in my toe box. Instead of flying to Japan and playing in an Invitational Tournament, I spent the time having another toe amputated. I had three in total during my playing career. My great, fourth and fifth toes.
We were very lucky to still obtain sponsorship and be able to pull off another TAP Tournament that year. The City of Houston was also able to hold its Metal and Muscle event as they had each year to showcase Adaptive Sport, but it was more wheelchair based. I always wanted to figure out a way to combine the two. I started playing tennis again with people who played tennis in wheelchairs, and so for me it made sense to try and include both. In 2017 I was very happy that by working together with others, San Antonio had players enter the United States TAP Tennis Tournament and had a program up and running. We did not have continued participation from some from other countries, but we did add players from new countries to come out and bring ideas back to their countries. Japan started to have an increasingly larger participation rate every year. I had made arrangements that year to help assist a few players, monetarily, from different countries come to participate in the 2017 USA TAP OPEN. In starting to understand cultural differences, I knew of the class structure in South America. There is no real middle class. So I helped two players fly out that had never been to the United States before and maybe never would have. I also gave up my room that year for two players so they could come and compete. When needed I would go to the room and sleep on the floor and stored my tennis bag there as well. Due to us being an unsanctioned category of tennis, sponsorships are hard to come by. In understanding this, you try and help each other out as much as you can to continue to grow participation and hopefully open the money pipeline. For my role in the Tournament I was given a free hotel room for the duration of the Tournament each year.
To start 2018 I had to get used to my good friend Benjamin Emanuel no longer being my strength and conditioning trainer. Ben is a former NFL football player and I can say pretty accurately and honestly that from day one of my getting back into tennis, it seemed like the right place at the right time with a lot of things. Ben was adjusting to life out of the NFL and in a transitional stage. I brought him to Santiago, Chile with me in 2015 and then I hired him as my strength and conditioning coach. He is the best I know. He taught me so much. He also travelled to Brazil with me in 2016. I brought my good friend Damon Wilson with me to the Tournament in Brazil as well. Ben just like everyone else had to put food on the table for his family and got some really great opportunities that I am very proud of him for. While it lasted, I felt honored to be part of Team Just-Train and appreciate Ben for all he helped me achieve. Ben is really the only other American who saw where tournaments started from — a grassroots movement — and to what they have turned into.
The Malmo Open is the largest ParaSporting event to take place in Europe. For the first time in 2018 the event was going to allow Adaptive Standing Tennis as a competitive category of play. The Tournament took place in February of 2018. Before going to Europe I was admitted into a hospital for a few days to take care of any injury to a toe of mine. I was given a large bag of IV antibiotics, preventing me from any sort of infection for well over a month, some medical packing tape to stuff inside of the hole in my toe, some pain medication, and a date to have my toe amputated when I returned. This was going to be my first time travelling to an International tournament alone but then another American player joined me. Sandra Giorgetta. We coordinated things so we stayed at the same hotel and it was nice to have the opportunity to get to know her a lot better. At Tournaments in Houston it was often hard to get a lot of time together with other American players and players in general. There was always something to do as an organizer plus the match format was set up with us only playing one set at a time but several sets a day. I trained and got my body ready in a certain way to prevent injury and prepare for sudden and shorter (often 28-minute matches) use of muscle and body with an undetermined period to recover or cool down and having to be ready to play again. I had formed closer relationships with South American players from prior Tournaments. While the Malmo Open may not have had a huge turnout, however, it was nice seeing my friends Cynthia from Austria and Harald from Sweden. It was also an opportunity to meet new Austrian and Swedish players. They really did “literally” roll out the red carpet for us. A memory that stands out to me during that tournament was when I was playing a match against friend Kent Ring. I was wearing a very uncomfortable pair of shorts. They were restricting some of my movement. So two games into the set I asked Sandra and Cynthia who were sitting on the bench watching the match, to move in front of me while I “dropped trow” and quickly changed into a new pair of shorts, haha. I missed my flight from Copenhagen to the United States so I was able to have a night out with Sandra where we had a few drinks and talked about how to grow the game in the United States. I got back to the United States with a lot of enthusiasm and a date to have my toe amputated. I was looking forward to it. I had started adopting a mentality during hospital stays where I would just rest, decompress, get away for awhile, and come out ready to get back into the mix.
The schedule for 2018 called for International Tournaments in Sweden, Brazil, Argentina, a Tournament in the States in the Midwest Section, and finishing the year out with the third annual USA TAP OPEN in December. So far Sweden was a success.
I have written and revised 2018 to present more times than I can count. 2018 was a year of many new faces, opportunities, changes, obstacles, and realizations. This piece I am writing stems from an original draft I had in archives on my website. I rediscovered it in December 2020 as I was trying to figure out what if anything I wanted to do with this going forward. It has changed shapes and format several times over the years. Initially thinking about starting a company. Then as an area to which I could point people to for sponsorship for the USA TAP OPEN, sponsors for myself to help train and travel, a blogging page documenting certain things/memories, and perhaps more of a Foundation in the future. I am still unsure. The last edit date to what was initially written was January 27, 2018. Right before attending the Malmo, Open. What jumped out at me the most was how positive and full of life the words were on the page. I almost questioned myself, “Did I write this? Who is this guy?”
To best sum up 2018-2020, my body started to fall apart, I started to fall into a depressed state at times, I started to question my motivation in regards to tennis, I started to feel some of the same feelings which initially drove me into getting a doctor’s note to be excused from tennis in high school. I also began questioning myself about what happy and self love is. Why I felt certain ways in certain scenarios. Why I wasn’t speaking up for my community more. If I am wearing jeans it is often difficult to tell I have a disability. I can hide it. Maybe not so much in this last year, 2020. From being a child who would hear whispers and notice people staring to now being an adult and almost a fly on the wall. It was a mind trip for a little bit. All of these small incidents kept bottling up inside of me to a point in the future when it would explode. I didn’t feel these thoughts prior about myself. Or the adaptive community. I knew my friends didn’t think this way about me. Many friends who teased or bullied me in years past have actually contacted me personally and apologized. Telling me how they tell their children about me and the lessons they learned from me about life while growing up that could apply to them. I had mentioned that I would help at the US Men’s Clay Court Championships held in Houston every year. In 2018 I remember hearing several women passing by the USTA booth, where a wheelchair was, promoting Wheelchair Tennis, saying “I would never get in one of those.” I said nothing. I did nothing about it. This comes coincidentally after a talk with a friend about speaking up and calling people out on things. Using your voice more. Not in a negative way but in a positive corrective way. Change occurs slowly over time. It takes many to help. The same applies to Adaptive Tennis and Sport. We would also have people deface and vandalize the tennis courts we taught on in the city of Houston. The facility not only serves as a community center but mainly as a safe space for persons with disabilities to go and participate in numerous activities. The same facility I mentioned above that saved my life. The tennis courts were reserved for individuals with disabilities anytime we wanted to play. We had practices two nights a week. When we had problems verbalizing to others the courts were reserved for class, we put up laminated paper signs. They were cut down. So finally a fellow coach of our program made a professional metal sign and fastened it with special screws so it could not be removed. As I said sports unite. One situation I can point to that speaks to this is an evening teaching our kids in Houston. Three guys wanted to play. We understood that in the inner city public tennis courts are hard to come by to play recreational tennis. So if our class was smaller we would share the courts or ask if they would like to play as well. This one time these guys came and I spoke to them telling them I was unsure of attendance for that night but if they could hang tight for ten minutes we should be able to share courts. A guy replied, “Oh, handicap tennis, OK.” I guess there is always this boiling point people have. It hit me fast. I did not say anything back and we ended up having attendance so we could permit them to play on the other court. Half way through our class I told fellow coach Preston to take over for ten minutes and I asked the guys hitting next to me if I could jump in and play some doubles with them. They agreed. We started hitting. I let a lot of controlled anger and feelings out while I was hitting with them. I was hitting a very heavy ball with a lot of pace and spin. I would hear them commenting, “Yeah, that’s the shot! Back up man” (the other doubles team communicating amongst themselves). I got a good sweat in and thanked them for letting me hit. As I was walking back to our practice court I heard them saying, “Wow, did you see his racquet speed! Did you see how much spin was on the ball! Did you see that guy moving on the court?” There was no disability. They had changed their verbiage and were using words such as “he” not that “handicapped player” and basically just regular conversation in playing a sport. Sport breaks barriers. Societal norms or stereotypes. But there is still this invisible hand or almost force that feels like it is halting progress. A final example. In 2016 a visually impaired runner from Algeria broke the World Record in men’s 1500m at the Paralympics. By World I mean he had a time faster than any other Olympic athlete or anyone in the World. A total of Four Paralympic visually impaired runners would have received Gold medals if they ran in the Olympics. Did you know this? Not a lot of people do or even did after it happened. The questions that sums everything up and you should ask yourself is, why? I believe it transcends outside of sport.
After my toe was amputated in 2018 I made a trip to North Carolina to visit with a family whose son had a passion for tennis and a recent amputee. They wanted to figure out ways to keep him involved in tennis and ways they could help grow Adaptive Standing Tennis.
While in North Carolina the question was brought up about what my role in the USTA was.
Up until that point I couldn’t really give an honest answer. At times I was confused myself and it did have an effect on friendships and relationships I had with other players in the United States and Internationally as well. When it became more prevalent in 2017 it was, “Tell them you help advise us and serve on a committee so you are privy to certain information and experiences.” Trying to explain that to friends and colleagues without it coming directly down the pipeline from management or a higher entity is easier said than done. It is hear-say. I would also point to a news article written, but that didn’t help much either. I did bring the question up once again after returning from North Carolina and was told I was a volunteer but not really a volunteer. More than a volunteer if you will. Taking emotion out. Listening. Reading. Writing. I was a volunteer.
After getting back from North Carolina I had a talk with my father about what was going on in my life at that time. I was steadily having to increase the amount of pain medication I was taking. The side effects of the medication was also becoming harder to deal with. Altering my behavior and attitude at times. Being admitted into the hospital more frequently with pain in my spine and infections. I was also having to go to an urgent care facility from time to time to get a strong shot of pain medicine and steroids. On top of that some things were already beginning to happen behind the scenes on our Tour. I was not having fun anymore. I was not the only one who felt this way. Things started to get very serious. Brazil was probably going to be cancelled. I knew how my body was beginning to respond after each Tournament and training sessions, and I knew mentally I was ready to be done playing competitive tennis. My interest was moving more into organizing, creating clinics and camps, consulting work in the sport, and working with kids.
Then a breath of fresh air happened — being invited out to help instruct a Wounded Warriors Tennis Camp in San Diego, California. My roommate was such a funny positive person and I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot from the camp as well. Networked. When I got back to Houston I decided that I was going to finish out the 2018 year schedule and play my final year of competitive tennis. I started working with a new trainer and chiropractor, Dr. Tyler Bowman. I knew my back was messed up. But I wanted to try and play in the final Tournament of the year. The 2018 USA TAP Open. So I trained and I started coaching again for the city of Houston.
At our practices for the longest time we would invite out wheelchair tennis players as well. From Day One I was asked by someone why the wheelchair program in Houston wasn’t as strong as it was before. I was also given the best advice I received as well by the same person. Keep playing tennis. Stay out of the politics. Have fun. I would struggle with the second piece of advice as time went on. How to run Adaptive Tennis programs or practices.? A lot of people have different views on this I guess. Some wanted the classes to be split up, wheelchair on one night and adaptive standing on a different night. I always tried my best to push towards having the classes all inclusive. I think it fundamentally does something to the brain of an individual by keeping classes apart. I mean, when I got back into tennis it was wheelchair players who I practiced with. Now, we are keeping friends apart. People apart. It can cause friction. Misunderstanding. Every year I would instruct tennis at the Abilities Expo in Houston. 2015 and 2016 ran smoothly but I began feeling very weird teaching the segment because 90% of the participants played in wheelchairs. I did not. I have played tennis in a wheelchair. It is a completely different game than playing standing. I practiced with and have taught wheelchair tennis players, but I know how it feels when someone is taking the lead on something that may not be representing the community being served. Those events needed to be run by a wheelchair tennis player. So in 2018 I emailed Dr. Michael Cottingham of the University of Houston and asked him if he could come and help me. This way we could connect participants a lot better with individuals running programs and more knowledgeable about that category of tennis. I enjoyed teaching it with him.
I felt physically ready to play in the 2018 USA TAP OPEN. I was also excited that a new friend Dionté Foster was going to be playing in it as well. I was contracted out to work with him in Louisville, KY that year by Wayne Luckett of Louisville Prosthetics and Orthotics. They had arranged to gift Dionté a prosthesis he could play tennis on. I had also recently lost a friend to osteosarcoma cancer. Dionté was a former world champion Special Olympic tennis player. Now he was going to have to learn how to play tennis differently after losing part of his leg to Osteosarcoma. I was hired to help him. It was nice to see him smile during the USA TAP OPEN. He had hope. Hope is a strong thing. My second match at the USA TAP Open pretty much ended competitive tennis indefinitely for me into the future. I dove for a ball backhand side as I had done 3 years prior in Chile. In Chile, I broke 3 ribs on the clay doing so. In Houston I caused further damage to my lower spine on the hard court. I rolled out of it and got back up fast. I won that point. At first the adrenaline is there so you keep going. During warm ups I was going through serves. My first practice serve, my opponent from Japan went to block the tennis ball with his racquet. It hit his racquet and knocked him backwards, hitting his head. I was ahead 5-3 in the match. The umpire called an injury timeout after seeing a huge hematoma on the gentleman’s head that had begun to grow very large. He had a medical stroke prior in his life so it was a very serious situation to evaluate. It was a good 20 minutes of waiting to see what would happen. I tried to stay warm. When the match resumed I ended up losing momentum and lost 5-7. About two hours later I could feel bone on bone in my spine when I was trying to move and when I hit a tennis ball I would feel it through my whole body. I went on to play in the rest of my matches but in hindsight should have retired from the tournament. It was exciting to see so many new American players at the tournament that year. One person I met was Joanne Wallen. She gave me her business card. The last thing I really remember from that Tournament was a group dinner with all of the players from around the world we established as a tradition every year thanks to Scott Carr. I was sitting next to Mike Marsh. I took two Vicodin in front of him and told him about my back. He told me I should not be playing tennis if I had to take that medication to do so. He was right. Following the tournament I spent several days in the hospital getting the inflammation and pain under control.
That was a cold winter. Thanks to my friend Jason Kedzierski an opportunity at Babolat became available for me. Prior, I was an endorsed pro. I was invited out to Denver to take part in a program being started called the Babolat Hit Squad. It was a huge honor. I was still having to take a lot of pain medication and was having a really hard time hitting tennis balls. I have been playing with a Babolat Tennis racquet since 2014. I originally played with a Prince CTS growing up. When I got back into tennis my coach was using a Babolat tennis racquet. I asked if I could try it out. She told me no and that only she uses her own racquets. It only made me want to purchase one more. So I did. I started off playing with the Babolat Pure Drive 107. I switched to the Pure Aero Tour in 2016. It is what I still currently play with. I switched to Babolat tennis shoes in 2016 after Jason let me wear a pair of Propulse Furys in the Inaugural USA TAP OPEN. I was having a lot of problems with my heel. I noticed that over time using the Propulse Fury not just as a tennis shoe but as an everyday shoe my heel healed very quickly and I did not have any further problems getting ulcers or wounds around that area. In 2019 we had numerous Adaptive Standing Tennis Tournaments scheduled. Looking back, I am proud of being a contributor and part of a team that got things off the ground and opened some doors for others. There is also a grant available now earmarked for Adaptive Standing Tennis players and programs by the United States Tennis Association. When I was teaching, training, and traveling it was not available. I had to think of creative ways to market myself and our program. I would sit on this wooden bench with my friend and fellow coach Scott Carr, and we would talk about how to market me and the category for the longest time. Beginning in 2015, I knew I really was going to have only 2-4 years to achieve some on court goals I wanted to. I did. I can say I am proud of myself. I could not for a while and lost confidence in myself. For a little while I did not think I deserved to be with Babolat. I talked to my father and Babolat about it and I am grateful to be around such positive people. I think for a little while social media gave rise to a “wow” factor when it comes to athletes and adaptive spor. I promised my friend John Hizer that I would go out and compete in his tournament if he made it an adaptive event. He did. Before going to play in it I remember I still felt very lonely and was still occasionally going through bouts of depression. Looking back, I had everything I shot out to get, enjoyed teaching an adaptive tennis class, my son was happy, life really was good. I was just depressed. I think years of at times being marched into a room and the whole “feel good story” being brought out, “Gods Children” vibes, inspirational themed posts, comments I would hear, push back after breaking a barrier down and it being put back up, but most of all coming to the realization there was a lot of trauma in my past I did not deal with nor talk to anyone about and it came to a head. That I didn’t like myself. Leading up to the Paralympic Games in Brazil in 2016 many of the athletes, many of them my friends, started speaking out about how they felt about themselves at different points in their lives. Either not liking themselves or not loving themselves. I remember sharing these articles with my family and it was an “I am not the only one moment” for me. I can remember talking to several Adaptive athletes about why we are not speaking up about things like this more. If so many were speaking to this topic then surely many others feel the same way or have felt the same way during their lifetime. I have noticed in Adaptive Sport that it is really every two years that there are opportunities or a platform, if you will with media. The summer and winter Paralympic Games. It has been really nice actually seeing that trend change. Now you can see individuals like yourself on the television, in print, or photos by brands marketing to the mass but without an “inspirational” theme so much around it. There are a lot of individuals who, for a long long time, have been tirelessly advocating for what is now present. Recreational therapists and these advocates oftentimes do not get the recognition that they deserve.
I reached out and got in touch with a friend of mine, Jarmere Jenkins. He is a tennis professional and Serena Williams hitting partner. I told him how tennis and life was making me feel and he offered me some great advice: be around more positive people. That he had my back. I told him how much I appreciated the words and can’t tell you how much I appreciate him for being there for me at the right time. I sought out personal counseling from a licensed therapist as well.
It was shortly after that in which the USTA (National) had an annual meeting in Austin, Texas. We were going to have an exhibition match between myself and my friend Eric Schmeltekopf. Eric was one of the first new recruits from Texas I met when it came to Adaptive Standing Tennis. He came across my Instagram account and sent me a message. I took a screenshot of the message and sent it to Cindy Benzon, with a text that “this is why we do what we do.” That was in 2016. Eric and I played against each other a lot. I think we are dead even in record against each other but honestly never really kept count. Eric and I are good friends and always enjoyed playing with and against him. We played for a bit in Austin in front of passersby and then Cindy Benzon and Amanda Friday jumped in and we played doubles. That is the last time I remember smiling and laughing on a tennis court. It was a much needed stress reliever. I don’t think just for myself.
I met a new friend and good friend of mine in North Carolina at the last tennis tournament I was playing in. Damian Wright. He is a former marine and recent amputee. He was in a transitional stage in life and had the time and sponsors to take a trip with me to Orlando, Florida to the National Tennis Campus. There we got to play with Jason Harnett and Jason Allen as well as had a meeting with JoAnne Wallen. My roommate from San Diego and friend Paul Walker also came out. I was curious what it was we needed to do to get things moving and sanctioned as a category of play. Yes, we had been working on it in the states for five years and Enzo in Chile for much longer, but there was a missing puzzle piece. They offered some advice and it was like a “damn it, we were so close,” moment. I recorded everything in an article I previously wrote that I learned from that visit, Adaptive Standing Tennis in the USA . We also got to play for a little while and have Jason and Jason watch, observe, and learn. Very grateful. At that time I knew I needed to get out of tennis and concentrate on myself. I had tried before. It is just easier said than done if you have a passion and that passion comes very easy to you about something. Back in 2017 Taylor Jones, the Marketing Director of USTA Texas, stopped me in the Hall at the annual meeting at Horseshoe Bay and asked how I felt about getting as much as I had done in such a short period of time. I didn’t know how to answer and it has always stood out to me as something I looked at and still don’t have an answer to. I just did what was asked, what felt natural, used my prior experiences in life and team mentality to get things done, used my name or platform from the Tour when needed to stand for something but didn’t stop and think too much about accomplishments. I just enjoyed doing what I was doing. So finding that healthy balance to remove yourself from one area but still be attached to it was hard for me. At the 2019 USA TAP OPEN we changed the format and the United States Tennis Association started taking the category more seriously making available USA shirts and jackets for any player who played in the Tournament. I really enjoyed being able to coach my friend Dionté that year. He would end up winning in his category. Most of all I enjoyed being able to socialize with friends and other organizers at the event.
Wrapping things up in 2020 COVID happened.
I have learned a lot through the sport of tennis. I gained confidence in myself through it and lost it at the same time at one point. In learning from what I went through and studying it, almost post tennis matches, I discovered it applied to my life as well and in recognizing that made me more successful in the end. Not on the court. But off the court. Taking pride in myself. Being able to be proud of my accomplishments and learning to be more assertive when I needed to be and stop second guessing myself. When transferring from my playing career to the next chapter it was a big struggle for me. We essentially pioneered a new category of sport in tennis. I did not have that person who had gone through what I had gone through once again to give me advice about transitioning. So I am looking forward to continuing to replay a cycle that has been prevalent in my life. Going through unique experiences and then sharing my knowledge with others to help offer transitional guidance.
I was able to help not only help pioneer a new category of tennis around the world working with others but help future athletes and programs in the United States as well by making new grants, sponsorships, and programs available. Awareness is the greatest agent for change. I hope that a child, young adult, or anyone with a physical challenge was or is currently able to see one of us making the push to create change and raise awareness to say to themselves I can do that too if I want to. To feel that same feeling I felt on so many occasions of being able to experience things one can only hope to feel or experience in life. So many great memories for me. On our Tour we receive points for playing in each international Tournament. I retired ranked Fourth in the World in my category. In order to be ranked you had to play on the tour and go to the events. Most of the time in grassroots movements those that have additional income are able to participate more than others. I believe it is important for those of us who have been able to participate to use a platform to help get others involved. I know there are many other talented amputees and others around the world who could play in this category who have not heard about it yet. Just as I was combing through a magazine in 2000 to learn about adaptive sports. Truth be told, at my best and not playing in a Tournament as an organizer and ambassador as well I am probably one of the three to four best above knee amputee tennis players in the World. In Texas I play at a 4.0 level. I hold my own. An above average TENNIS PLAYER. In the category I played in on Tour we were put against players without amputations that could move a lot better. Over time I learned it didn’t matter so much about my rank or if I won or lost. But about being there. Continuing to raise awareness and using my name and platform when needed to grow participation. I am still going through a transitional phase. My back may get to a point in the future again where I can play. Who knows. I know I have a niche in the area of movement and teaching others how to move well on a prosthesis. Growing up I used to study people’s movements and practice endlessly to move like them. I wanted to know or feel what it felt like to be able to be “normal.” But most of what I learned in life getting to the next chapter or journey came through hardship, persevering , and using what I learned through the process to apply to what comes next.
The thing I am most proud of and enjoyed doing was running our program in Houston. We really helped save some people’s lives. Literally. Became a family. Enjoyed playing a sport together. To see other programs beginning to sprout up across the world is the best feeling in the world. I am happy I was able to contribute.
In giving advice to those pioneers and youngsters coming up behind us I would give the same advice someone gave me when I started playing tennis again. Have fun. Stay out of the politics. Always find a way to keep playing tennis and having fun. Keep moving the needle and know you may hear a thousand no’s but all it takes is one yes. Making sure to work together is also very important. Everyone has something different and unique that they can bring to the table. If someone is trying to help and recruiting players and holding tournaments, be supportive of each other. They may do things differently than you but as long as they are trying to grow the game that doesn’t matter. Something I learned as well is that different people at different times are going to get opportunities that others will not. Be happy for that person and cheer them on!
Have Fun! Live by the Golden Rule!