- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

HOUSTON (AP) - One evening back in 2001, Jose Arriaga was driving back from a soccer game with his buddies, about to have people over for barbecue. They got into a wreck on their way home that left five of the seven riders dead. Arriaga survived but was paralyzed from the chest down, at age 20.

The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2eNaxxu ) reports recovery was long and painful. As he got stronger, Arriaga started trying other sports - baseball, rugby, hockey. Tennis, though, was the one that stuck.

“It’s like therapy,” says Arriaga, who has sparkling eyes and a quick smile. “The more I practice and practice, I found that I had the spirit to do tennis. Now I can do nothing without tennis.”

After first picking up a racket four years ago, Arriaga advanced quickly through the ranks of adaptive tennis, traveling across the country to competitions. And on Sunday, he played at a U.S. Tennis Association-sanctioned tournament at Memorial Park tennis center, the first put on by a year-old adaptive athletics program at the University of Houston.

The players whir across the court, angled wheels flashing as they turn on a dime and reach far beyond their seats to return powerful serves.

The UH program’s director, Michael Cottingham, uses a wheelchair himself. Most people who end up that way, he says, are like Arriaga: Men who got spinal-cord injuries sometime between the ages of 14 and 25. Many have less education than average and lived in a high-risk lifestyle, such as serving in the military or driving fast cars. For them, sports are an outlet for frustration, a way to meet people and excel at something.

“If you go to a 16-year-old male and say ‘Do you want to talk about your emotions?,’ they’re not going to be interested,” Cottingham says. “If you say do you want to play a sport, they say ‘yeah.’?”

According to Cottingham’s research, sports have an economic upside as well: Employment rates are much higher for people in wheelchairs who participate in some kind of athletic competition, since it helps them to become independent in other areas of their lives.

Some people have even worse physical conditions, like Juan Rodriguez, also paralyzed in a car accident. He doesn’t have the full use of his forearms and has to tape the racket to his wrists in order to hit balls. But he says he fell in love with the sport after only a few practices, and getting up and going to play felt empowering.

“I want to keep going,” he says.

Adaptive athletics have been around for a long time, but its benefits have come to increasingly be recognized in Houston, which now has at least five active programs in which coaches meet disabled players to work on their skills. Arriaga practices a few nights a week at the West Gray Adaptive Recreation Center. Houston now likely has the most wheelchair tennis players of any city in Texas, according to the USTA’s Texas chapter, though it’s still only a few dozen total who play actively.

Taking Houston’s wheelchair tennis game to the next level, however, won’t happen on its own. The largest collegiate programs are at the University of Alabama and the University of Arizona. Fielding a competitive college team would require more resources than the UH program currently has at its disposal.

“It’s about the money,” says Samantha Kwan, a UH sociology professor who also directs the adaptive tennis program. “If someone dropped a million dollars, we would have permanent staff; we would be able to give scholarships.” Instead, they’ve cobbled together sponsorships from local individuals, companies and groups like the Houston Tennis Association.

Playing adaptive tennis seriously isn’t the cheapest hobby. Along with rackets, balls and court time, the special five-wheeled chairs that strap you in by the waist and the legs cost about $4,000. Tires need replacing. And then there’s traveling to tournaments, which Arriaga plans to do at least three times in this coming year. After that, maybe his own sponsors.

Arriaga is modest about his own competitive prospects. But on the highest levels, even losing is a victory.

“I feel good when I lose like that,” he says. “When you win easy, it’s like, ‘ugh.’?”

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide