July 11, 2002
Physically challenged athletes converge on Flowood for wheelchair tennis tournament
By Collin Johnson
Health and Research News Service
FLOWOOD, Miss.—After spending years traveling the country to compete in tennis tournaments, Johnnie McGinn and Mike Blackburn won’t have to go very far to compete this weekend.
Starting early Friday morning, the state’s only tennis tournament for the disabled kicks off at 8 a.m. at the Courthouse Racquet and Fitness Club off of Lakeland Drive in Flowood.
McGinn, 31, injured his spinal cord in a 1994 car accident and was paralyzed from the waist down. It was two years after he left Methodist Rehabilitation Center before the former Belhaven soccer player was mentally and physically prepared to tackle sports again.
“It’s obviously a hard thing on you physically when you hurt yourself like I did, but its just as hard to take your life back mentally. You have so much to overcome. It’s so frustrating,” he said.
As it turned out, sports—and tennis in particular—would play a big role in helping McGinn get back his life.
“I had always been competitive, but you can’t play soccer in a wheelchair and I was looking for another way to work out,” he recalled. That’s when fellow Methodist Rehab patient and big-time tennis guy Michael Cottingham came in.
“Mike’s a great motivator. I started going to practices and reading about wheelchair tennis and asking lots of questions,” McGinn said. “That’s the first thing you realize about sports for the disabled. It’s not just competitive, but the social part is how you learn so much. It’s more like a support group where you can ask any question that someone who’s not in a wheelchair just wouldn’t understand.”
Even though he hadn’t really played tennis before his injury, McGinn took to the sport quickly. At least one reason had to do with the sports’ inclusiveness.
“Tennis is the only sport where you can really play and compete with able-bodied athletes,” he said. “In almost every other sport, able-bodied athletes have huge advantages over you, but not in tennis.”
Wheelchair tennis follows the same rules as able-bodied tennis except that the wheelchair tennis player is allowed two bounces of the ball. Different divisions include categories for electric and manual wheelchairs.
That inclusiveness is a big reason why lots of physically challenged athletes turn to tennis, said Ginny Boydston, director of therapeutic recreation at Methodist Rehab. “Unlike a lot of sports for the disabled, you don’t need any special equipment for the able-bodied and the disabled to play together.
“It’s a great sport in that way because it brings people together. There’s nothing stopping a tennis player in a wheelchair from going out and playing with friends and family,” Boydston added.
What most people don’t realize, however, is that you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to be eligible for wheelchair tennis, said Mike Blackburn of Newton. Blackburn became a quadriplegic after injuring his spinal cord in a car crash.
“Wheelchair tennis is for anyone who can’t play regular tennis because of a medical problem,” said Blackburn. “You could be an amputee, or have a cleft foot or a hip replacement and play with us.”
Like McGinn, tennis taught Blackburn independence and freedom.
“I never worked out as hard before my injury as I do now,” said Blackburn who also hunts, fishes and plays for Methodist Rehab’s quad rugby team.
These days, he frequently drives himself to tournaments across the country. “If you had told me I would be traveling so much and checking myself into hotels, I’d have never believed you. But playing sports has made me stronger and given me so much confidence that I’ll try almost anything now,” he said.
McGinn’s first tournament came when Cottingham “encouraged” him to start competing. “Mike kind of entered me into a tournament without really telling me about it and he was right. I got into it and loved it,” McGinn recalled.
Tennis also helped him meet his wife, Kari Yerg-McGinn. She was teaching wheelchair tennis in Florida when they met and it just took off.
Having a tournament in Jackson is a boon to Mississippi, players say. The closest out-of-state tournament is in Baton Rouge. “And after that, you’re almost flying to every other one,” said McGinn.
Hopefully, this tournament will give people a chance to be exposed to the sport, said Blackburn. “There’s always people around that would love to play if they only knew about it. Maybe having tournaments here will be a way for more locals to get involved.”
For more information:
Wheelchair tennis helps rebuild lives | The Clarion-Ledger