If you've never seen wheelchair tennis played it's amazing what these people can do.
Friday, August 5, 2005
Tennis coach serves as inspiration to players who just want a chance to compete
By Chuck Martin / Enquirer staff writer
Photos by Tony Jones / The Enquirer
Jim Rackett, the founder, president and coach of the Southern Ohio Wheelchair Tennis Club, plays with a student during a class at Sawyer Point, downtown. In wheelchair tennis, players are allowed a second bounce before returning the ball.
Wheelchair tennis began in the mid-1970s and has grown into an international sport with tournament competition sponsored through the International Tennis Federation and the United States Tennis Association. Competitors play the game by the same rules as tennis played by able-bodied persons, except that wheelchair players can hit the ball after the second bounce. The court, net, balls and rackets used in wheelchair tennis are the same as in able-bodied tennis.
One advantage of the sport is wheelchair players can compete against able-bodied players. A popular format is called "up-down," in which a wheelchair player teams with an able-bodied player in a doubles match.
All eyes are on him as he wheels onto the court on this Thursday night wearing wraparound sunglasses, hair tousled by the breeze. He could be an older Roger Federer. Or with that devilish grin, maybe a younger Jack Nicholson.
For the small group of tennis players and parents sitting in the bleachers of the tennis courts at Sawyer Point, downtown, Jim Rackett is probably just as big a celebrity. He is the founder, president and coach of the Southern Ohio Wheelchair Tennis Club, who drives from his Springboro home twice a week for practice with Cincinnati Recreation Commission classes.
Lifting one leg at a time with his hands, and then pushing himself up with his muscular arms, Rackett, 39, eases out of his "everyday" chair into his "sports" chair, which has two wheels tilted in at the top and a smaller third wheel in the rear for stability.
Time to play tennis.
Rackett - that's his real name - started the club in 1999, nearly a decade after an accident left him paralyzed from his chest down. An athlete at Lebanon High School who never played tennis, Rackett discovered the sport after his paralysis and simply decided he wanted to find more people to play with.
"He's very high-energy, very giving and as competitive as he can be," says Bruce Flory, director of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters tennis tournament in Mason, who began playing with Rackett nearly 10 years ago.
Rackett has recruited more than 50 players in six years. His club is so successful, the U.S. Tennis Association recognized him in 2003 by giving him the Brad Parks Award - the sport's biggest honor, named after the man credited with starting wheelchair tennis.
But, of course, he didn't start the club or coach its players for the recognition.
"The thrill of seeing someone come out of their shell," says Rackett, who is a manufacturing engineer at AK Steel in Middletown. "That makes it all worth it."
Patience and perspective
Rackett rolls out onto a court to smack balls with one of his star pupils, Monica Fritsch of Independence. Born with spina bifida, the 18-year-old graduated from Simon Kenton High School and is headed to Northern Kentucky University this fall.
"I was awful when I started," says Monica, who has been playing wheelchair tennis for less than five years.
Rackett spent the first year teaching her to get the ball over the net. "As a coach, he's very patient," she says. "And with my skills, you have to be."
Fritsch admits she doesn't win that often in tournaments, but that's not why she plays.
"When I play, I'm with people who have some of the same experiences I have," she says. "It gives me the perspective of how to do things."
Rackett kids her about the Andy Roddick wristband she wears. "She likes him because he's a great tennis player," he says, teasingly. "Right."
After exchanging shots for a few minutes, student and coach talk over the net. Then Fritsch wheels away to find another opponent.
"She has more determination than anyone," Rackett says.
Player shows real promise
The player with the most promise is Emmy Kaiser, 15, of Fort Mitchell, who competed with the Junior U.S. Tennis Association High Performance Team in Europe this summer. A sophomore at St. Henry High School in Erlanger, Emmy plays on the school's tennis team. Her teammates can use their legs, but Emmy, born with spina bifida, cannot.
Yet it's easy to see how she beats them and others who don't use wheelchairs. When she serves, Emmy fires the ball low over the net, rarely faulting. While waiting for an opponent to return her serve, Emmy weaves her chair in motion, to maintain momentum.
In wheelchair tennis, players are allowed a second bounce before returning the ball. But Emmy, who began playing tennis at age 5, often doesn't need the extra bounce. Pivoting her chair on a dime, she is able to reach most shots. Sometimes, she returns the ball backward over her head, while moving away from the net.
And she's always smiling.
"Emmy has the potential to be the best woman player in the world," Rackett says.
For a doubles match, Rackett teams with Jim Dotson, 51, of Springdale to play Emmy and Chris Olbert, 29, of Elsmere. A quadriplegic paralyzed in an auto accident when he was 17, Olbert duct tapes the racket into his right hand.
"The first couple of times I played, the racket went farther than the ball," Olbert jokes.
The scores are close, but Rackett's team beats Emmy's, two games to one. "We could've won if we played longer," Emmy says, sounding like a competitor who doesn't like to give in. "But Jim (Rackett) has to leave early."
'I guess I'm lucky'
It's 8:35 p.m. Except for Olbert and Dotson, who doggedly play each other into the darkness, the other players and their parents leave. But Rackett takes time to talk about tennis, spending only a minute or two on the accident that paralyzed him 15 years ago.
"I guess I'm lucky in a weird way that I had a sister who used a wheelchair," he says, of his older sister, Bev, a paraplegic. "I knew I could do it."
It may sound like a cliché, but it is Rackett's positive attitude that keeps him coaching and recruiting club members.
"I met him right after his accident and he has always been upbeat," says his wife, Traci, 35, who doesn't use a wheelchair
After dating six years, the couple married in 1998. They suffered a serious scare in 2002, when Jim came home from a tennis vacation with a high fever. Doctors determined it was caused by necrotizing fasciitis, a rare condition caused by flesh-eating bacteria. Surgeons removed a softball-sized chunk of flesh from his right leg.
Rackett nearly died, spending two weeks in the hospital. Family and friends expected him to cancel the Midwest Section Team Cup, a wheelchair tournament the club sponsors every October in Middletown. But Rackett wouldn't give up.
"While he was on a ventilator, he wrote: Do not cancel tournament," Traci says.
They didn't, and Rackett basically directed the tournament from his hospital bed.
He recovered and life got even better when Traci gave birth to twin boys, Cayden and Kyler, in December. They're why he needs to get home to Springboro immediately after we talk.
"In the back of my mind, I guess I want to compete again," Rackett says, before wheeling himself out to the parking lot.
But for now, being a father, coach and an inspiration is plenty.