First Wheelchair Tennis Player at Nationals!
|Johnny Johnston© Cynthia Lum|
John Johnston, captain of the 3.0 Senior men’s team from Gainesville, Fla., is the first wheelchair tennis player to play against able-bodied players at a USA League Tennis National Championships. He competed with his team, representing the USA Tennis Florida Section, in the USA League Tennis presented by Lincoln 3.0 Senior National Championships held at the Riviera Resort & Racquet Club and Moore Tennis Academy in Palm Springs, Oct. 15-17.
To come to Palm Springs with his team, Johnny, as his friends call him, declined playing in the Quickie U.S. Open USTA National Wheelchair Championship in San Diego – a prestigious event he has played since 1980 and has clinched five titles in. “This is the chance of a lifetime,” he said. “This is huge for wheelchair tennis and a tremendous honor for me.”
Although his team did not win the 3.0 Senior Championships in Palm Springs, Johnny and doubles partner Rich Romano won their match in a dramatic third set tie-breaker against Mel Brown of Topeka, Kan., and John Weber of St. Overland Park, Kan., who represented the USTA Missouri Valley Section.
In addition to his role as captain of the USA Tennis Florida men’s team, Johnny is coach of the girls’ tennis team at Buchholtz High School in Gainesville. His girls have been champs four out of the five years he has coached them. He has also coached international wheelchair tennis players Beth Arnoult and Julia Dorsett.
Johnny lost the use of his legs after being shot three times in Vietnam. Coming from a family of seven children – five brothers and two sisters – Johnny’s competitive nature inspired him to try tennis. His younger brother, Joey, took him out on the court one day and blasted balls by him. Determined to get better, Johnny took lessons and came back with a
vengeance and a love of the game.
He phoned in to enter his first able-bodied tournament without letting tournament director Dan Dwyer, owner of Point-Set Indoor Racquet Club in Oceanside, N.Y., know he was wheelchair bound. When he showed up the day before the tournament to determine what division he would play in, Dan said, “you gotta be kidding me.” But after watching Johnny excel on the court, Dan happily entered Johnny in the next tournament. Dan and Johnny joined forces and launched
wheelchair tennis competition on the East coast in 1975. Dan donated court time to wheelchair players and offered free lessons. Back then, they played one bounce instead of the two bounces they play with now.
At age 56, Johnny reflects on how the game of tennis has affected his life. “I know I wouldn’t have done half the stuff I have done.” Johnny has been all over the world competing in international wheelchair tennis tournaments in places like France, Holland and Japan to name a few. “Tennis is a great game that anyone can play for the rest of their life,” he said. “It’s the game of a lifetime.”
Never Too Late to Learn the Game
Olga Pedroza and her partner Josephine Bernal from the Southwest Section rallied hard at Moore Tennis Academy for over two hours and were victorious, 6-4, 7-6, over opponents Stacie Rivers and Edith Lee of Intermountain. Olga, a recently retired lawyer, said with a smile: "Being the team lawyer can be a lot of pressure. Sometimes I have to fight every point."
As teammate Linda Crooks from El Paso watched the barn burner, she touted tennis as a sport that brings people of all ages and abilities together. "We play on the public courts in el Paso and Las Cruces," she said. "On any given day you can meet up with a bunch of people and pick up a game." Linda, a part-time Physical Education coach at the University of Texas at El Paso for the past 33 years, picked up tennis only four years ago at the age of 51 after not having played the game since she was a teenager. She credits Bill Lucero, a coordinator from the Southwest Section, with welcoming her back to the game she loves so much and plays almost every day. "I want to win and it’s a bonus if I do, but it’s OK if I lose as long as I get to play." She thinks about a friend back home in a nursing home who can’t lead the healthy, active lifestyle she does and feels lucky to be in the game that welcomes new friends into her life and takes her on travel adventures to tournaments in the U.S.
Don’t Mess with Texas
Sandy Blevins of the Texas Section proudly displays a "Don’t Mess with Texas" sticker on her left arm, which she broke one week before her trip to Palm Springs. Her broken arm required surgery, a steel plate and a cast that prevented her from playing since she uses a two-handed backhand. She likes to tell people that she broke her arm doing a 360 degree flip while playing football, but the truth is she tripped over an ice chest. She actually broke the same arm twice before tripping over a sofa and a bike. Yup, that’s three breaks on the same arm in four years. Her husband was beginning to worry that the hospital may have a file on him!
|Don't Mess with Texas© Cynthia Lum|
Her dedicated doubles partner of 20 years, Sandy Maness, said, "If you’re not going to the Championships, I’m not going." But Sandy B. convinced her partner to forge ahead. She promised the team, "If things get bad and I am needed, this cast is coming off and I’m playing!" But the Texas ladies may not have to saw off Sandy’s cast. They all carry good luck "winning bears" each equipped with a mini tennis racquet. Sandy B. calls her bear "Ova." She laughed: "You know how good those Russian ladies are."
Although she’s not playing, Sandy B. assumed the role of captain so she still is very much a part of the team as the decision-maker. Her friend, Kathleen Butts, gave her a pair of "Funky Flops" adorned with tennis racquets. She told Sandy, "Wear these…If you can’t play at least you can look good."
|Forever Young© Cynthia Lum|
Betty Dufresne of the Eastern Section designed the "Forever Young" logos that adorn her team’s t-shirts and the special bags that they give to their opponents. Betty, a resident of Schenectady, N.Y., is a graphics designer that focuses on fundraising for children in schools across the nation. She put children’s art on mugs, t-shirts and bags and sells the items to raise funds that go back to the schools. Check out www.silvergraphics.com to explore some fundraising possibilities.
Not only does Eastern team captain Wanda Fischer swing a mean backhand, she sings a lovely tune and brings music into the lives of many. Creating harmony on a tennis team as captain – a role she has embraced for over 17 years – is just part of her gig. When she’s off the court, Wanda pursues another passion – folk music. She has been a public radio folk-music DJ for 22 years. If you live in the Albany area, tune into Wanda’s show on WAMC-FM, the National Public radio affiliate. In 1982, when WAMC wooed its then volunteer on board as a DJ, Wanda brought along her 400 vinyl folk albums, a collection that dwarfed the station’s 32 records.
|Folk Music DJ Wanda© Cynthia Lum|
After years of being on the radio and welcoming talented folk singers on her show, Wanda was inspired to record an album of her own. Her dream was finally realized in January 2002, after a few years of scrapping recording sessions that weren’t up to her high standard of excellence. Her album, Singing Along with the Radio, was released and Wanda was immortalized among the many folk singers whose albums she has played on the air waves for over two decades.
Saturday, Oct. 16
by Alex Palombo
Boyhood Buddies Back in Action
Ken Sundstrom and Richie Larson are the No. 1 doubles team from the Northern Section. The 71-year-olds have been tennis partners for the past seven years. Team captain Pat Ledray said, “When you watch them play, there is little communication between them on the court but they always seem to get that ball back over the net.” There is little need for talk because Ken and Richie know each other’s moves quite well. They duo were teammates back in 1944 when they played basketball, six-man football and baseball together in grade school, junior high and high school in Cokato, Minn. After high school, geography separated the two for many years but they kept in touch and remained friends.
|(l-r) Boyhood Buddies Ken Sundstrom and Richie Larson© Cynthia Lum|
After Ken retired from being a teacher and a baseball coach, he sought out a new hobby that would also offer some exercise. Inspired by his two daughters who played tennis – one of which, Joanie, who was a Minnesota state doubles champ – Ken took up tennis. “In addition to it being a fun hobby, tennis encouraged me to eat better so I could move quicker on the court,” he said. “Tennis really helps me to stay in shape.”
Richie, a retired Superior Court reporter, got into tennis when he moved closer to his childhood friend, who encouraged him to give the game a try. An avid racquetball player, Richie got into the swing of tennis quickly and the rest is history. He agrees that tennis is a fun sport that helps him keep active and fit. “My doctor said I am looking good and told me to keep doing whatever I am doing.” Ken laughed and said, “Funny, my doctor told me the same thing.” Undefeated so far in the tournament, it’s no wonder that Richie and Ken are a sought after duo when National Championship teams have to break up. “They are really good…better than most of us,” said their captain. “They’re a hot commodity when people are looking to form new teams.”
Courageous Captain Cecil
|Southern Captain Cecil Johnson© Cynthia Lum|
What makes someone assume the responsibilities of being a team captain? If you speak to any number of these fine leaders, they say it entails a lot of administrative duties, communication skills, strategic planning and enthusiastic support. Sounds like a lot of work, but for some captains, like Cecil Johnson from the Southern Section, it's a labor of love. He has served as a USA League Tennis captain since 1982.
When asked why he has stuck with it for so many years, he said: "It's all about the camaraderie and the competition." Having played team sports like football, baseball, basketball for most of his life, Cecil was looking for that same kind of team-oriented fun, so he got into the game of tennis at the age of 50. He had tried his hand at golf, but decided the game was too slow for him and did not offer the physical exercise and social interaction that tennis does. "We play together, we pull for each other...we're in it together," he said. At age 76, Cecil is a veteran of Senior and Super Senior competition. He has probably won more tennis games than all of his teammates put together.
Getting to Know Teammates
|Synchronized Swimmer Mary Smith© Cynthia Lum|
A funny thing happens when tennis teammates are off the court sipping drinks by the pool. They get to talking about subjects other than tennis and learn all kinds of neat stuff about each other. “When we’re together on the court, we tend to focus on important stuff like the game and how to play better,” said team captain Ann Long. No one on the Northern women’s team from Minnesota had any idea that one of their very own – Mary Smith from Bear Lake – is an accomplished synchronized swimmer, who competed on the state and national level during her teenage years. Well, one thing led to another and before they knew it the team was in the pool getting a lesson and working on a synchronized routine. “If we train really hard through the year, maybe we can come back to Nationals next fall and perform a synchronized swimming routine for the other teams,” Mary said with a chuckle.
Although Barbara Jacobson wanted to join the Northern ladies for the 3.0 Senior Championships, she had to stay home to prevent a family rift. It’s peak apple picking season in St. Paul and Barbara’s family runs the Pine Tree Apple Orchard. The Orchard sponsors a charity tournament each year for children’s cancer care at the White Bear Racquet & Swim Club where the Northern ladies play. The ladies even sport the Pine Tree Apple name on their team shirts. Even though they understood why Barbara had to forgo the trip to Palm Springs, they really wanted her to be with them, so they brought along two life size head shots of Barbara – one of her with sunglasses on for the team photo and another of her raising a glass for when the team went out for dinner and drinks. Senior National Championships veteran Audrey Strane, accompanied the team and gladly stood in for Barbara in all the photos.
|Audrey Strane as Barbara Jacobson© Cynthia Lum|
The men’s team from Northern California firmly believes that if you tally all the player’s ages on the various teams to get an average age for each team, they collectively represent the oldest team. “Our oldest player is 75 and our youngest is 62,” said team captain Peter Levison, who is 69. “We average out at 69.” Co-captain Marvin Kirchner, who is 75, said, “Tennis is a major part of my life. It’s a form of exercise that I love and it really keeps me going.” Marvin started playing the game at the age of 40. “Many of my friends played tennis, so I gave it a try and loved it.” Peter, who has been playing tennis since he was a young boy, thinks at his age tennis is the easiest sport to play and keep fit. Several of the players on the team are the 2003 Super Seniors reigning champs. “We’re looking for a repeat here,” said Peter. If age and experience are any indicators of victory, the NorCal men have a good shot at it!
Saturday, Oct. 17
by Alex Palombo
| |Women's Finals
Pacific Northwest def. Eastern, 3-0
|PNW Champs! (front row, l-r) Audrey Simmelink (captain) Priscilla Cadwell, Adele Connors, Carol Kerkow, (back row, l-r) Vicki Rynd, Marilyn Hesser, Helen Johnson, Terri Welsh and Elaine Matheson.© Cynthia Lum|
| |Men's Finals
Texas def. Caribbean, 2-1
|Texas Champs! (front row, l-r) Denny Rosini, Bob Bender (captain), Pat Roberts, Rick Beacham, (back row, l-r) Joe Hevey, Mark Myers and Ichiro Fujii.© Cynthia Lum|
Eastern def. Caribbean, 2-1
Pacific Northwest, def. Southern, 2-1
3rd place match:
Southern, def. Caribbean, 2-1
Texas, def. Northern, 3-0
Caribbean, def. Intermountain, 3-0
3rd place match:
Northern, def. Intermountain, 2-1