David Wagner hits soft crockery across the net, but few of the kids on the other end hit it back. Most are still figuring out how to push their wheelchair into position to receive the ball, time their swing and make contact. Some get frustrated when it comes to their turn and miss it.
Sitting in his specially adapted wheelchair, his racket tied to his right hand with white athletic tape because his spinal cord injury deprived him of the use of his core muscles, Wagner is hopeful that the kids will stick with it and explore the worlds wheelchair tennis can offer. open to them, as it did for him. He provides helpful tips and words of encouragement as he skims the court at a US Tennis Assn. Southern California event at Great Park in Irvine.
Well done, he calls out to a youth who waves and misses. Good rally, he says to a kid who hit the ball back well. Thanks for making me look good, he says to another.
Wagner, a Fullerton native who grew up in Washington state, was paralyzed at the age of 21 when he broke his neck while chasing a Frisbee in a deceptive current on Redondo Beach. He was a natural athlete and wanted to bring the camaraderie of sports into his new life. He loved basketball, but the nature of his injury ruled out wheelchair basketball because he couldn’t catch or shoot the ball easily. I had no great desire to even try, and I don’t really know why, to be honest, he said. Maybe it just had a different feel to me.
We put athlete first, disability second, and these kids have a chance to feel that way. And that’s such a great thing.
Table tennis was the first sport he tried. Wheelchair tennis became his calling.
Wagner, 47, has won four medals in the quadriplegic singles category and four medals in quad doubles, three of which are gold in the last four Paralympic Games. He has qualified mathematically for the postponed 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, scheduled from August 25 to September 5, and trains full-time at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.
Wagner was also instrumental in getting quad tennis added to the US Open and is a 19-time quad doubles champion and six-time quad singles winner at tennis Grand Slam events. Venus Williams, a winner of multiple Grand Slam tournaments, proclaimed him her friend and a source of inspiration in a YouTube video.
He has become a quad tennis evangelist and educator by maintaining a high level of play, ranking fourth in the world in quad singles and speaking at clinics such as the one he attended in Irvine in late April at the request of the Southern California Tennis Assn. Foundation. The foundation trains coaches to teach wheelchair tennis and supplies wheelchairs for those who want to try it. Wagner provides motivation and a path forward.
It’s not about these kids, any of them, making the Paralympic Games or winning a gold medal, he said. It’s about how many of them play tennis with their brother, and instead of being the disabled kid who just keeps score, it’s the disabled kid who’s playing. They are the athlete with a disability as opposed to the disabled scorer. We put athlete first, disability second, and these kids have a chance to feel that way. And that’s such a great thing.
Wagner began playing table tennis while undergoing rehab near his home in Walla Walla, Washington. He could play when friends came to visit and reclaim a slice of his old life. While reading Sports N Spokes magazine, which focuses on adaptive sports, he saw an ad for a wheelchair tennis clinic in Beaverton, Oregon, about four hours away. He was intrigued.
For me, it was about what I could play that was most similar to what I did before, or as an athlete before that, and that was tennis and table tennis, he said. You and I can play table tennis for fun. For seriousness. For money. Whatever we want. You and I can play tennis, and you don’t have to sit and play. And that was really what attracted me to the sport.
He learned about wheelchair tennis from pioneers Randy Snow, Dan James and Rick Draney. He found that he could join standing people to play doubles and that he could make a career out of competitive tennis. The clothing company Uniqlo sponsors a professional tour for wheelchair racing for men and women and has a quad category. I didn’t know you could take it to the next level, Wagner said. I thought it was just playing with your family and friends.
Wagner’s workout at the Chula Vista facility includes swimming, workouts in the gym, and hand biking. The pandemic-induced delay of the Tokyo Paralympic Games for years and the delay or cancellation of other events tested him mentally but helped him physically as he recovered from hernia surgery. His normally hectic schedule slowed, allowing him to heal completely.
I missed the competition a lot, and I missed the camaraderie, the competition challenges, he said. Why are you training? You train to compete. So not having that was a challenge, but it actually extended my career. It has given me renewed strength to feel good about the sport. Not that I didn’t feel good about the sport, but I felt like I could train harder and get back into a longer training block. I had four months to just make my body feel good, and that was great.
His goal is to compete in the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. Maybe I’ll play with one of you here, grown up, he told the kids he met in Irvine. I like the sport. I just love to improve. You can always have a better forehand. You can always have a better backhand. You can always be kinder. Take that same mindset into life.
See the athlete, not the handicap. See David Wagner and get inspired.
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