Friendship drove Brad Parks (pictured) to become founder of wheelchair tennis. In 1976, the 18-year-old sat in a hospital bed pondering what his life would look like -- after being paralyzed from the waist down by a spinal cord injury suffered in a ski accident. Parks didn't want to lose his athletic friends, and wondered what sport he could play, given his injury. He had played recreational tennis before the accident, and thought to himself, I could probably play tennis from a wheelchair, although he had never actually sat in one.
From that vision, Brad Parks went on to found the sport of wheelchair tennis, and for 20 years, served as president of the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis. For his pioneering role, Parks became the first wheelchair player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010. Wheelchair tennis tournaments are now held in 41 countries worldwide, with programs existing in almost 100. San Clemente resident Brad Parks is also a real estate agent in Orange County.
Q: How and when did you get the idea for starting wheelchair tennis?
A: When I was in the hospital and realized I would most likely be in a wheelchair for life, I began to think about things I could do, and one was tennis. I thought just maybe a guy in a wheelchair could play tennis. At the time, I had one set of friends who were all skiers and surfers -- since that's what I did. My first thought was, what can I do so I don't lose all my friends?
So I started playing tennis just after I got out of the hospital. My parents were playing at a park, and asked me to give it a try, because they knew I was thinking about playing. I loved it from the first hit. I thought that I'd give myself a year and see if it could be done, and after that year, I never stopped playing.
Our first wheelchair tennis tournament was held in Griffith Park in 1977, and I played in the finals against David Kiley, who was a premiere wheelchair basketball player. At that time, basketball was the main wheelchair sport, and many of those players also became wheelchair tennis players. A few years later, after giving an exhibition and clinic in Southern California, a small group -- mainly me and a local teaching pro -- decided we should form an organization to develop the game, and so we did.
Q: What were the challenges in getting it going?
A: It was hard at first because the wheelchairs were so bad. There were no sport-type chairs in the 1970s, only hospital chairs. We also used two bounces, which was hard for people to grasp. Many court owners did not want wheelchairs on their courts, and it looked sort of weird to see a bunch of handicapped people try and play tennis. But over time, they realized that wheelchairs didn't harm the courts, and there was a whole new group of people who wanted to play their sport.
The invention of lightweight chairs and techniques used in pushing the chairs and positioning the body in the chair enabled more people to be able to play -- like quads. In my playing days in the '70s and '80s, a guy who was an amputee or had polio with really good balance had such an advantage over someone with a higher-level (spinal cord) injury. In those days, too, guys were trying to modify their wheelchairs to try and make them turn better. There were kids in their 20s in wheelchairs who started making wheelchairs in their garages and forming their own companies, and it revolutionized the wheelchair industry.
Q: Have you been surprised at how successful the program has become?
A: Yes and no. I always felt wheelchair tennis was a wonderful sport, and one where a disabled person could play with an able-bodied person -- making it even more special. But success at the top level, playing in the Grand Slams, prize money, and the development of (light-weight) wheel chairs has been fantastic. I did not imagine that we would be playing in the Grand Slams or be run by the organizations of tennis, and be part of the game versus being separate. I also know a lot of coaches who have told me that wheelchair tennis revived their interest not only in playing, but in coaching. It's been a good thing.
Q: What has being involved with wheelchair tennis done for your health and life?
A: I wanted to participate in sports with my able-bodied friends after my accident. Tennis gave me this opportunity. It made me feel alive and more normal. With the growth of the game and the competition, I was able to travel the world and make wonderful friendships because of tennis. It also kept me fit throughout my adult life.
Q: What is your philosophy on what disabled athletes can achieve?
A: I am constantly amazed at what wheelchair athletes have been achieving. I was injured in a skiing accident, and I thought my skiing days were over, but I went helicopter skiing this past March in Alaska. With the invention of sports equipment and the continued improvement in wheelchairs, disabled people can go hiking, biking, and water and snow skiing. There is even a guy who does back flips in skate parks in a wheelchair.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
San Jose Mercury News columnist,
Posted by BA Haller at 9:56 PM