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LOA, Wayne County – When Rick Draney first started playing wheelchair tennis as a quadriplegic, his sister noted that it was a struggle for him to take up the sport. He had to tape the racket to his hand, she explained, and when he swung the racket to hit the ball, it didn’t often go over the net.
“I just said, ‘Why would you do that to yourself?'” Debbie Rime said, recalling the earlier experience. “He just looked at me and said, ‘What else am I going to do?’ You know, so from then on I realized that you can’t limit another person based on your perspective.”
Through her own resilience and the support of others — including Rimes — Draney has come a long way in her tennis skills. So much so, in fact, that this Saturday in Newport, Rhode Island, the Loa, Wayne County, native will be the first quadriplegic tennis player to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Draney will be one of only seven wheelchair tennis players inducted in the history of the sport.
“It’s such an honor to be recognized and included,” Draney said. “To somehow believe that I have been considered, that my accomplishments and my contributions have been deemed worthy of being included in the halls of honor with all the other individuals is incredibly humbling to me.”
The athlete was nominated for the award in November 2022, and after a few months of review, the International Tennis Hall of Fame announced that it would induct him and another wheelchair tennis athlete, Esther Vergeer, into the Hall of Fame.
“This will be the first time that two wheelchair tennis players will be inducted in the same year,” added Draney.
Not only is Draney world famous in tennis, having been one three-time No. 1 champion in International Tennis Federation quad singles, but he also won three national championships with the Sharp Shadow wheelchair rugby team and received a wheelchair rugby gold medal with Team USA in 1994 and with the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.
With her accomplishments and skills, Draney has used her knowledge to teach dozens of paraplegic and quadriplegic athletes how to best compete in wheelchair tennis.
Rime added that Draney “was basically the quad tennis player that put quad tennis on the map.”
“My involvement gave me the opportunity, gave me the opportunity, not only for what I was able to experience and achieve in my life, but to help try to defend the opportunities and opportunities for other quads around the world,” Draney said.
But the journey to Draney’s current success was not simple.
Deciding how to move forward after a tragedy
When Draney was 19 years old, he was seriously injured in a car accident, which left him a quadriplegic.
“He was on the verge of becoming independent. He was on his way to Germany on a mission and all that changed in an instant, through no fault of his own,” Rime said. “When this happened, it was such a bleak future.”
Originally an athlete who had loved sports and being outside, Draney was just trying to survive one day at a time, he said. After his physical rehabilitation, he re-enrolled in college in Southern California, and in one of his first classes, he sat next to another student in a wheelchair.
“He asked me if I played any sports and I was still fresh out of the rehab hospital,” Draney said. “He told me about a wheelchair tennis program at another college there in Southern California, and at first I was like, ‘Man, I’m just struggling to get through the day. How on earth could I even think about playing sports again?'”
After some encouragement from her classmate, Draney decided to join wheelchair tennis practice. Instantly, he faced several battles.
First, he said, his hand retained about 5% of his motor control, making it difficult to hold a racket. It was also difficult to turn the wheelchair, stay in the chair and move quickly in it, Draney added.
He began experimenting with taking a bandage and wrapping his hand around his tennis racket handle; however, he had trouble swinging it correctly to just hit the ball.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, and you know, there wasn’t really anyone to teach or train most of the quads (quadriplegics) how to get into tennis. A lot of it was trial and error, and so I got pretty frustrated and felt like, ‘Well, I’m never going to do that again,'” Draney said. “But there was something about the challenge, I think, of enjoying physical activity again that sparked enough curiosity in me that I overcame my frustration and thought, ‘Well, I’ll have to try that another time or two’.”
That’s when Draney really started experimenting with how he would hold the racquet, as well as propel the wheelchair forward to get to the ball and hit it.
Driven to succeed
“When he first started, you know, it was a whole different world as far as not just looking on YouTube and figuring out how to do this,” Rime said. “It was all trial and error.”
Draney added that in order for him to secure the racquet to his hand, he “looked at the options that were out there” — one of which was athletic tape.
The athlete would initially tie the tape around his hand and the racket handle with the sticky side in – creating pain and other problems for his hand. Then he tried another solution: wrapping his hand with the sticky side of the tape facing out.
“Now I had a nice sticky surface around the wrap … around that handle, the grip on the racquet, and that stickiness then translated into better contact and better movement, better mobility when I was pushing with the grip,” Draney said.
Then he strapped his legs and feet into the wheelchair, making it easier for him to stay seated while the racket became a simple extension of his arm.
As Draney practiced and played, being able to get outside and be athletic allowed him to have hope for the future despite the difficulties of the present, he said.
“There was a future again and it was exciting again and I was grateful for that,” Draney said. “It was the enjoyment of being outdoors, of feeling the sun on your face, of sweating, of just engaging with other people and just enjoying the sport for the sake of the sport. So it was a part of my life that I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, and it was re-energised and thought, ‘Well, if I can do this, what else can I do?'”
With the changes he made, Draney began playing competitively and started his career in 1984.
Draney attended his first open tournament in Fresno where he competed and won against other quadriplegic players. He went on to compete in the US Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships, making it all the way to the finals.
The athlete won 12 singles and six doubles titles at Super Singles level – with five British Open titles and seven US Open titles – and spent a total of 289 weeks in the singles top 10 of the Quad Division rankings.
While competing, he noted that there were far more paraplegic division players in the open competitions than quadriplegic players, noting that the competitions gave him “an opportunity … to maybe help bring a little bit more focus to the quad division.”
Draney would continue to shine a spotlight on the quad division by serving for nine years as tournament committee chairman for the US Open Tennis Association Wheelchair Championships. The athlete also received the United States Tennis Association Brad Parks Award in 2012, given due to his strong performance in wheelchair tennis.
Competing with so many different athletes, Draney said, he realized, “They’re really professional athletes who happen to sit down instead of getting up to do what they’re doing.”
‘You never know how much of an impact… you have’
By serving and befriending his fellow wheelchair tennis players, Draney added that many loved ones and friends — including the classmate who encouraged him to take up wheelchair tennis in college — have driven him to success.
“I will be forever grateful for their efforts, for their time, for their service, their sacrifices, their support. … I’m so grateful for the people and places and the experiences I’ve been able to have,” Draney said.
He also hopes that the competitions and successes will encourage other players with disabilities to continue to move forward with hope despite their challenges.
“You never really know how much of an impact or difference you make,” Draney said. “It could be one person at a time, individually, that you’re working with. It could be a group of individuals at a camp or a clinic. It could just be when you’re competing around the world, doing what you’re doing, that other people see and observe and see and again, just like I saw theirs and said, ‘Well, if they can do it, maybe I can do it.'”
It’s not just other players that Draney has influenced; his sister said Draney’s ability to brighten her future with resilience and creativity has helped her get through her own trials.
“Your life takes a different turn and you know it might be better than you imagined, or at least better than you thought it would be,” Rime said.