In an ongoing effort to increase accessible sports in Blacksburg and around campus, Rec Sports will partner with the men’s tennis team to produce Virginia Tech’s first ever wheelchair tennis clinic. The clinic will take place on Saturday, Feb. 22, from 1-3 p.m. in the Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center. The event is open to Virginia Tech students and the public. Eight adult wheelchairs and two children’s wheelchairs will be provided for participants to use during the event.

Though new to Blacksburg, wheelchair tennis has been around for nearly half a century. After an accident left 19-year-old skier Brad Parks paralyzed in 1977, he spent his hours in a rehabilitation center racking his brain for what to do next. He often saw people playing tennis at the communal courts and wondered if, perhaps, tennis could be played in a chair. Parks, along with his physical therapist, Jeff Minnebraker, decided to test that question.

Parks and Minnebraker wheeled their hospital chairs to the court and began the inception of wheelchair tennis. Despite the discouraging shouts from nondisabled tennis players at nearby courts, and the difficulty of the stubborn and rigid hospital chairs, the two young men found joy and inspiration in tennis. More than 40 years later, wheelchair tennis has become one of the most popular and accessible disabled sports in the world.

Virginia Tech Men’s Tennis head coach Jim Thompson wanted to bring wheelchair tennis to the Blacksburg community after interacting with a young man in Radford who may potentially be in a wheelchair when he grows older. After meeting with a coach at Michigan State and observing the adaptive sports facilities and programs at Clemson and Alabama, Thompson decided that a similar program should be created for Hokies.

“I thought, why not Virginia Tech?” said Thompson about the wheelchair tennis program at Michigan State. “We certainly could be a school that would be able to do this and have a program. We just need to get it started.”

Thompson has partnered with Rec Sports, as well as Student Affairs Interim Vice President Frank Shushok, to make his idea a reality.

Along with Thompson and his players from the men’s tennis team, the clinic will be led by Jason Harnett, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) National Manager and head coach for Team USA Wheelchair. Harnett has been with USTA Wheelchair since 1998 and has helped to grow and nourish the sport as it continues to gain popularity.

Now, wheelchair tennis teams participate in competitions all around the world, including Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Paralympics. Recently, wheelchair tennis has broken into the collegiate level. The program has grown from seven schools represented at the Collegiate Nationals in 2018, to 19 possible representatives in 2020.

With its expedited growth and an ever-growing increase in athlete interest, wheelchair tennis is on the rise in American athletics.

“At the collegiate level, wheelchair tennis is really driven by athletes,” said Harnett. Thompson and Harnett hope that the clinic will pique interest in students and members of the community so that wheelchair tennis becomes popular on Virginia Tech’s campus, with the possibility of Virginia Tech students training to compete on a national level. The appeal of the sport comes from its adaptability — any court can be used, and any combination of sitting or standing athletes can play.

“Wheelchair tennis isn’t that different from non-wheelchair tennis,” says Harnett. The court, equipment, and rules are all the same — except those who are playing in wheelchairs are allowed two bounces before returning the ball. 

“The way you coach the sport is a little different than non-wheelchair tennis, but the sport itself is pretty similar,” said Harnett. “When you’re looking at the court, you don’t see wheelchair people or non-wheelchair people. All you see is tennis players who love the game.” 

For more information on the wheelchair tennis clinic, contact Kelly McPherson at kmcphers@vt.edu or visit the Facebook event page at www.facebook.com/VirginiaTechRecSports

-Written by Madison Sweezy