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  • 26 Nov 2014

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Serving strong

Paralympics champion brings smiles to wheelchair tennis camp


by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Paralympian David Wagner lays out a plan for the participants of the Northwest Wheelchair Tennis Association Wheelchair Tennis Camps for Kids at the Tualatin Hills Tennis Center. Propelling a wheelchair forward with both arms and a tennis racket in one hand isn’t most kids’ idea of having fun. Until David Wagner gets involved, that is.

As the wheelchair tennis champion leads one child after another through a winding course on Saturday at the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District Tennis Center, Wagner’s enthusiasm is enough to keep the fledgling players smiling and laughing even when the chair’s steady roll turns into a shuddering lurch.

“Follow me! Follow me!” he implores, as each child takes a turn on his or her chair.

“You’re so fast!”

“Good job!”

Excellent!”

Wagner, who took gold and silver medals in wheelchair tennis at the 2012 Paralympic Games competition, returned to Beaverton for the second annual Northwest Wheelchair Tennis Association’s Wheelchair Tennis Camp for Kids. Expanded from last year’s one-day session, this year’s event is a six-week skill-building course that will culminate with a mini-jamboree and tournament for juniors on June 15.

About 15 children between 6 and 13 years old — including residents of Beaverton, Hillsboro, Portland, Wilsonville and Salem — are participating in this year’s event. Camp co-founder Carl Backstrom, program development coordinator for the NWTA, said Wagner’s crackling energy adds a transcendent element to the learning process.

“He works magic with the children,” Backstrom said. “You can see their eyes glowing. We affectionately call this the ‘David Wagner Show.’”

Assisting Wagner with the program are John Devorss, coach of the U.S. National Juniors Tennis Team, and Debbie Borchers, a coach with 25 years’ experience who runs a weekly adult clinic at the park district’s Tennis Center. Several veteran players are volunteering to help with the free event, which in addition to THPRD, is sponsored by the Greater Portland Tennis Council and the Clackamas County Peace Officers Benevolent Foundation.by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Elizabeth Keen, 6, of Beaverton tries to hit a tennis ball during the Northwest Wheelchair Tennis Association Wheelchair Tennis Camps for Kids.

Building a champion

Backstrom, a Portland resident who started playing wheelchair tennis in 1995, got to know Wagner in 1999. That was the year the United States Tennis Association officially brought wheelchair tennis into its repertoire.

“He inspires me,” Backstrom said. “It’s amazing where he’s gone. I feel very fortunate to know the guy.”

Mike Meyer, who co-founded the tennis camp with Backstrom, noted Wagner developed his skills through a NWTA clinic that same year — and never looked back.

“He started through our program, and now he’s a champion,” said Meyer, 47, a Raleigh Hills resident. “He’s a true success story through the Northwest Wheelchair Tennis Association.”

Based out of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., Wagner spends much of his time traveling the world, coaching and promoting wheelchair tennis. The 37-year-old recalls getting his start at the THPRD center when he was 23.

“It was the first competition that was open for all ages,” he said during a short break on Saturday, as Borchers and Devorss worked through drills with the children. “Now I try to get back here as often as I can.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Maddy Somerville, 5, of Tigard hits a tennis ball during the Northwest Wheelchair Tennis Association Wheelchair Tennis Camps for Kids at the Tualatin Hills Tennis Center.

Adaptable abilities

Wagner played what he described as “able-bodied tennis” before he was injured in 1995. When he first got a wheelchair, he started playing table tennis, but the appeal of the grounded court eventually lured him back.

“I fell in love with the sport,” he said of wheelchair table tennis. “I couldn’t get enough. Once I started playing, I got the itch to play (regular) tennis.”

Aside from the sheer fun of following and directing volleys of the fuzzy green ball, Wagner appreciates the fact that wheelchair tennis players can go racket to racket with those blessed with full mobility.

“One of the great things about this is you can play professionally with those in the able-bodied world,” he said, noting a natural athleticism in some of the camp participants on Saturday. “We’ve got some athletes exhibiting good hand-eye coordination. The level of disability really plays a big role, as well as their natural athleticism.”

While Wagner admitted he’d like to see juniors wheelchair tennis become a more widely-known event, the implications are certainly a mixed bag.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said. “You want (wheelchair tennis) to get bigger, but you don’t want more disabled people. So you find those who are disabled and help them develop as tennis players.”

The camp, he noted, gets more fun as he and the returning participants get to know each other.

“It’s not about disabilities,” he said. “It’s more about ‘Let’s go out and have some fun.’ ”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Carl Backstrom and Mike Meyer co-founded the Northwest Wheelchair Tennis Association's Wheelchair Tennis Camps for Kids.

Kids have fun learning lifelong skills

Eagle Creek resident Ruthanna Bedlion, who exhibited a distinct flair on the court at the second annual Wheelchair Camp for Kids, said it's nonetheless challenging for her to move the chair fluidly with a racket in hand.

"I'm playing and getting better and learning how to do it," she said.

The 13-year-old got involved with the wheelchair tennis camp after meeting Carl Backstrom at Camp Attitude, a Foster, Ore.-based camp catering to those with disabilities. Backstrom's introduction to Bedlion's family was memorable.

“He broke my mom's coffee cup with a tennis ball,” she said with a chuckle of the errant return volley. “The cup went flying and broke when it hit the swing set.”

Josiah Schuermyer, a Southeast Portland resident now in his second year of wheelchair tennis camp, was impressed with what David Wagner taught him in 2012.

“I came here last year. It was awesome,” the 13-year-old said. “I know how to maneuver my chair. He teaches us a lot of things.”

Josiah's mom, Gina, said her son was diagnosed with spina bifida when he was 2.

“His physical therapist said he had natural athletic ability, which surprised me,” she said, noting the trait doesn't exactly run in the family. “But it's true. He loves sports.”

She would like to see Josiah compete with able-bodied tennis players when he gets to high school age and attends David Douglas High School in East Multnomah County.

“I think it's great to get started now, because tennis is something you can play all your life,” she said. “And he can play with non-disabled players.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ruthanna Bedlion of Estacada chases paralympian David Wagner during a drill at the Tennis Camp for Kids.