Photo by GREG KAHN // Buy this photo
Jack Beaulieu plucks a tennis ball from the spokes of his wheels and holds it in his gloved left hand. He guides his chair to the baseline, and with one swift motion, tosses the ball in a gentle arc and whacks it toward his opponents. Seconds after it leaves his racket, Beaulieu has already got a hold of the wheels on the chair and nimbly repositions himself for a return volley.
Beaulieu, 69, is one of several athletes who play in the Wheelchair Tennis Group for the Lee County Tennis Association which began in the late 1990s. The group plays barely beyond the boundary of Page Airfield in Fort Myers at Brooks Community Park every Thursday. The clinic is free to anyone, wheelchair bound or not. But there’s a catch. Players must play from a wheelchair.
Beaulieu, a seasonal resident from New York, lost his legs in a construction accident on Long Island 11 years ago. But that hasn’t stopped him from taking on every sport he can conquer. He’s won the Boston Marathon’s hand cycling division, he plays on the New York Yankees wheelchair softball team. For Beaulieu, it’s about not thinking about what he can’t do, but what he can do.
“Wheelchair tennis brings the players together to see what they can do,” Beaulieu said. “It helps inspire them. People think they get stuck in a wheelchair and it’s the end of their road.”
His opponents this Thursday were Dave Ennis and Arron Powless, both paralyzed at least from the waist down.
Powless, 40, sports a long black ponytail, and a wide belt around his stomach. Powless’ broke his neck in a car crash during his commute home from an Air Force base in Michigan 19 years ago. His neck is broken at cervical vertebrae 7, at the base of the neck near the shoulders, which means he doesn’t have as much strength in his hands. So instead of gripping his racket normally, it is duct-taped to his hand like a mummy. Then tape is wrapped around again with the sticky side facing out so he can use it to grip the wheelchair’s wheel. Powless said securing the racket only takes five minutes.
“I’ve got it down to a science,” Powless said.
Powless’ playing partner, Ennis, broke his back after a motorcycle accident 18 years ago on Palm Beach Boulevard. He’s been playing in the wheelchair tennis program for more than 10 years. Ennis enjoys the exercise and friendships that develop.
“We can all be competitive with other and still hang out afterwards,” Ennis said.
Harold Imhoff, a certified wheelchair tennis coach from the United States Professional Tennis Association, who helps coach the group, says teaching this group is a joy for him.
“I like coming out with these guys,” Imhoff said. “No one is forcing them to be here. They really want to play.”
The group’s hope now is to encourage more people in the community to join. They have members from as far north as Brandenton and as far south as Naples.
“The main thing is, you don’t have to be a super athlete to come out and bang the ball around,” Beaulieu said.
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Connect with Greg Kahn at www.naplesnews.com/staff/greg_kahn