Estimated read time: 8-9
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 start 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 when remembering the past experience. “He just looked at me and he said, ‘What else am I gonna do?’ You know, so, from then on I realized you can’t limit another person by your perspective.”
Through his own resiliency and others’ support — including that of Rime — Draney has gone far in his tennis abilities. So far, 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 the only seven wheelchair tennis players inducted in the history of the sport.
“It is such an honor to be recognized and included,” Draney said. “To somehow think that I have been deemed, that my accomplishments and my contributions have been deemed, worthy to be included in those revered halls with all of those other individuals is incredibly humbling for 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 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,” Draney added.
Not only is Draney world-famous in tennis, having been a three-time No. 1 champion in the International Tennis Federation quad singles, but he also won three national championships with the Sharp Shadow wheelchair rugby team and received a gold medal for wheelchair rugby with Team USA, in 1994, and with the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney, Australia.
With his accomplishments and skills, Draney has used his 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 who put quad tennis on the map.”
“My involvement gave me the opportunity, provided me the opportunity, not only for what I was able to experience and accomplish in my life, but to help try to advocate for the opportunities and possibilities for other quads around the world,” Draney said.
However, the journey to Draney’s current success was not simple.
Determining how to move forward after tragedy
When Draney was 19 years old, he was severely injured in a car accident, rendering him quadriplegic.
“He was on the cusp of becoming independent. He was headed to Germany on a mission and all that changed in an instant, through no fault of his own really,” Rime said. “When this happened it was, it was such a bleak future.”
Originally an athlete who had loved sports and being outside, Draney tried to just 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 was seated next to another student in a wheelchair.
“He asked me if I played any sports, and I was still new out of the rehab hospital,” Draney said. “He told me about a wheelchair tennis program at another college there in Southern California, and initially I thought, ‘Man, I am struggling just getting through the day. How in the world could I even think about playing sports again?'”
After some encouragement from his classmate, Draney decided to go to a wheelchair tennis practice. Instantly, he faced several struggles.
For one, he said, his hand retained about 5% of his motor control, which made it difficult to hold a racket. It was also difficult to pivot in 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 even hit the ball.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, and you know, there wasn’t really anybody to teach or coach most quads (quadriplegics) how to get started in tennis. A lot of it was trial and error, and so I got rather frustrated and felt, ‘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 need to try this another time or two.'”
That was when Draney began to truly experiment with how he would hold the racket, as well as propel the wheelchair forward to get to the ball and hit it.
Propelled to success
“When he first started, you know, it was a whole different world, as far as you couldn’t just look on YouTube and figure out how to do this,” Rime said. “It was all trial and error.”
Draney added that in order for him to secure the racket to his hand, he “looked at the options that were out there” — one of them being athletic tape.
The athlete would originally tie the tape around his hand and racket handle with the adhesive side in — which created pain and other problems for his hand. Then he tried a different solution: wrapping his hand with the adhesive side of the tape facing out.
“Now, I had a nice tacky surface around the wrapping … around that handle, the grip of the racket, and that tackiness then translated into better contact and better movement, better mobility, as I pushed with handgrip,” Draney said.
He then would strap his legs and feet into the wheelchair, making it easier for him to stay sitting, while the racket became a simple extension of his arm.
As Draney practiced and played, the opportunity 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 in my face, of sweating, of just engaging with other people and purely enjoying sport for sport’s sake kind of thing. So that was a part of my life that I wasn’t sure how that was going to turn out, and that re-energized, thinking, ‘Well if I can do this, what else can I do?'”
With the modifications he made, Draney began to play competitively, starting his career in 1984.
Draney entered his first open tournament in Fresno, where he competed and won against other quadriplegic players. He went on to compete in the U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships, making it all the way to the finals.
The athlete went on to win 12 singles and six double titles at the Super Singles level — with five British Open titles and seven U.S. Open titles — spending a total of 289 weeks in the singles top 10 of the Quad Division rankings.
As he competed, he noticed 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 of a spotlight on the quad division.”
Draney would continue bringing the spotlight to the quad division by serving for nine years as the Tournament Committee Chairperson of the U.S. Open Tennis Association Wheelchair Championships. The athlete also received the United States Tennis Association Brad Parks Award in 2012, given due to his strong perfomance in wheelchair tennis.
Competing with so many different athletes, Draney said he realized, “They truly are professional athletes who just happen to sit down instead of standing up to do what they do.”
‘You never know how much of an impact … you’re making’
In 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 propelled him to success.
“I will be forever grateful for their efforts, for their time, for their service, their sacrifice, their support. …I am so grateful for the people and the places and the experiences that I’ve been able to have,” Draney said.
He also hopes that the competitions and successes will encourage other players with disabilities that they can continue to move forward with hope despite their challenges.
“You never really know how much of an impact or a difference you’re making,” Draney said. “It might be one person at a time, individually, that you work with. It might be a group of individuals at a camp or a clinic. It might just be as you’re competing around the world, and doing what you do, that others watch and observe and see and again, just like I saw theirs and said, ‘Well if they can do that, maybe I can do that as well.'”
It’s not just other players that Draney has impacted; his sister said that Draney’s ability to make his future brighter with resilience and creativity has helped her in getting through her own trials.
“Your life takes a different turn and, you know, it can be better than what you imagined, or at least better than what you thought it was going to be,” Rime said.