Tennis camp shows young wheelchair athletes they're not alone
GRANTSVILLE — When Bobbi Hunter looks at her son, she sees a young man who loves to play sports.
She does not see, as some might, a child who needs help, a boy who can’t do some things for himself, or an unfortunate young man who has to learn to live without the games he loves.
“He is a perfect child,” she said. “He has no disability in my eyes.”
Spina bifida may have made his love of athletics a bit more challenging. But the way the Hunters see it, that just means they have to be a bit more creative in finding ways for 12-year-old Nathan to play the games he loves.
“He’s a very athletic kid,” said Bobbi Hunter of her second of four children who suffers from a birth defect that splits the spine, causing health issues, including paralysis. “Out of all of my children, he wants to be out there and wants to play. He’s always been that way. He’s come to realize there are some things he can do and some he can’t do. We try to be active as a family — we ride bikes; we go on hikes; we swim; we play tennis. We just try to find a way to do anything that keeps us outdoors and active.”
Nathan, who has limited mobility in his legs, said it can be frustrating to constantly see barriers to activities that seem so readily available to others.
“It can get hard,” said Nathan, who was introduced to the limited use of a wheelchair in kindergarten. “But otherwise, I’m all right.”
The hardest part, he said, is feeling like he’s the only one struggling with a body that just doesn’t seem to want to support his passion.
“What’s hard is that I feel so different,” he said. “How I handle it is that I just sit in my room and be alone. I just love sports. They’re fun to do, and they get me active.”
It is not always easy to find ways to play the games he loves.
He has played tennis for six years. When it became impossible for him to cover the court on foot, his mom asked coaches to continue working with him, even if he couldn’t compete.
Coaches told his mom that wouldn’t be possible because the children had to progress to stay in the program. Two weeks later, the Hunters were attending a party at Primary Children’s Medical Center, where they learned about some adaptive sports programs that could keep Nate playing tennis, as well as introduce him to other people in the same situation as him.
It was his involvement in those programs that led to him being invited to a tennis camp in California two weeks ago. That camp was organized and sponsored by the USTA, the ITF, the Johan Cruyff Foundation and the City of Mission Viejo, Calif. Coaches and Paralympians offered 32 young wheelchair athletes from 10 states and six countries the chance to do three things, according to Dan James, the USTA’s national head coach and manager of wheelchair tennis.
“The first goal of the camp, obviously, is to get better at wheelchair tennis,” James said after the first morning of instruction. “The second is to let them compete in an international ranking tournament. And the third part of the camp is the mentorship between the older and younger kids.”
Nathan said the best part of the camp is making friends and meeting some of his heroes. One of those, David Wagner, is a three-time Paralympic gold medalist and U.S. Open champion.
“He makes me want to keep going, to get better, and to always want to never give up,” he said.
Nathan doesn’t see the wheelchair as something that holds him back. He sees it as a tool to help him continue playing sports as he gets older.
“It’s a lot easier in a chair because I couldn’t keep up with other kids if I didn’t have it,” he said.
James said it takes an incredible amount of athletic ability and determination to be successful at a sport like wheelchair tennis.
“The coordination of using your hands and arms for movement and for striking the ball, it takes an incredible amount of athletic ability just to strike the ball,” James said. “It’s incredible. But the best part, the kids who are out here, they don’t care about that.” What the budding athletes care about is learning to play better tennis. They care about making friends and having fun.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Bobbi Hunter. “There are not very many disabled children out here in Grantsville; he’s kind of a minority. For him to feel like he can play, that he feels empowered to do it for himself, that’s just something incredible. And just so he knows he’s not alone.”
Nathan said the camp was for him exactly what his parents and the USTA officials hoped it would be.
“It helps a lot,” he said of playing tennis every day with kids who deal with the same issues he does. “It makes me feel like I’m not alone. And yes, I did have a lot of fun in the tournament today.”
Bobbi Hunter said she’s just interested in Nathan having fun and making friends.
“It melts my heart to see him smiling, having fun and see that confidence that comes from him doing something all on his own," said his mom.
Meanwhile, Nathan admits he has some lofty goals and has even considered how he might make athletics a career.
“I’m hoping I can be in the Paralympics,” he said. “I’d like to be in the police force or be a tennis instructor.”
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