Raising a racket: Mike O’Leary plays tough, wheelchair or not
Mike O’Leary has been a lifelong athlete. He’s not letting a wheelchair put a stop to that.
The Canadian-born O’Leary was a competitive skier, a member of the Canadian World Cup team, a hockey player and Jet-Ski racer. In later decades, the 63-year-old fell in love with pickleball, and became a top player.
Then O’Leary was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disorder that interferes with communication between the legs and the nervous system.
“This came on suddenly,” said O’Leary. “I’m still fit and strong in my upper body, but I have no connection between my brain and my feet.”
After a period of thinking his days of competing were through, he saw people in wheelchairs playing pickle ball at the Naples YMCA and said to himself, “I can do that.” With his noticeably competitive nature, O’Leary probably thought, “I can do that, and beat all these guys.”
Playing pickleball in a wheelchair, he soon realized he could play the sport well, with its small court not requiring the covering of as much ground as, say, tennis, and that he was not getting the competition he craved from other wheelchair-bound players.
“Most of those guys are paraplegic, more disabled than I am,” said O’Leary, who can walk a short distance using a cane. “So I started playing again against standing players, and beating them. They hate that.”
To play in a wheelchair, and prevail against those with the full use of their legs, is obviously a great source of satisfaction.
“The only consideration I get is, I’m allowed one more bounce,” he said. Pickle ball, played on a cut-down tennis court, is the fastest-growing sport in the country, as its adherents love to point out, and the US Open in the sport has been played for all three outings at East Naples Community Park.
But on Marco Island, the city’s Racket Center had difficult access for wheelchair-bound athletes. Working with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, O’Leary’s friend Dave Shagott, a member of an advisory committee on racket sports, got a ramp installed to allow wheelchair access to one elevated pickleball court, and dubbed it “O’Leary Lane” in Mike’s honor, with a sign next to the ramp.
More needs to be done to make the city facilities fully compliant, said O’Leary.
“It’s great what they did, but to be ADA-compliant, it should have a ramp,” he said. “The city should realize that making their facilities accessible will be much more economical than paying the fines they would incur.”
Martha Montgomery, Supervisor of Parks Facilities for the City of Marco Island, said the city is in the process of upgrading the bathroom facilities at the Racquet Center to be ADA-compliant.
“We want to add a handicapped-accessible stall, and a sink,” she said, adding the existing facilities date back to when the park was originally built. “We hope our budget is approved.”
Montgomery said she was not aware of any other city parks needing upgrades to be compliant.
“We have the ramp to the bathrooms at Veterans’ Park, and the new building at Mackle Park was just done last year – that’s compliant,” she said. “I haven’t had any other requests.”
O’Leary said that for him, the bigger issue was encouraging those who have found their mobility limited not to quit being active.
“I’m not dwelling on the past, I’m focused on the future,” he said. “I get more enjoyment now from playing pickle ball than I did from racing Jet-Skis. My neurologist said this is what’s keeping me on an even keel. I want to get more wheelchair people off the couch and competing.”