Photo Credit: Michael Gladysz
Fifty-year-old John Kistner doesn’t mind fielding questions about Wheelchair Tennis when, two decades ago, the game gave him a second chance at an athletic lifestyle.
By Michael Gladysz, special to USTA.com
John Kistner has been explaining Wheelchair Tennis to observers for 22 years. Kistner can go on for hours about the whispers he has heard, or the times he has been stopped by an inquisitive stranger.
“You should hear the things that people ask me,” said the 50-year-old. “Sure, some of them, I understand. Others, I just have to laugh at.”
“People ask me anything, like they’ve known me for years, even if I never met them before,” he added. “And things you might not even ask your own friends or family. Some people think that because I can’t walk, I don’t live a normal life.”
Every day, Kistner proves how wrong that is. He drives to work every morning. He works in accounting, 9-to-5, and then drives back to his house in Lansdale, Pa. Some nights he plays tennis. Others, he watches sports on television. He hangs out with his friends and family, goes grocery shopping and saves for retirement.
Kistner first picked up a racquet at the age of 10, but he didn’t play much competitively. Yet he loved being outside and, coming from a family of athletes, he enjoyed many sports. Then, on the afternoon of May 18, 1991, with just one spin of a wheel, everything changed. Out for a bike ride, Kistner hit a grate on the road and propelled over his handlebars. He shot through the air and landed awkwardly, shattering his T5-level vertebrae in his back.
Kistner spent the next five months in the hospital. At 28 years old, he had lost all movement in his legs. During that time, Kistner also lost 30 pounds and nearly all of his muscle tone.
“It was a hard time, obviously,” he said. “You spend your whole life living one way, and it’s taken away from you. It’s depressing, it’s sad. You feel sorry for yourself. You think about how things could be different, and what you’ll do the rest of your life.”
He had family in the area, and said if it weren’t for his parents, four brothers and two sisters, he wouldn’t have made it through what he called “the most demanding, difficult time in his life.” They drove him around and talked to him whenever he needed a confidence boost during his convalescence.
He found tennis by chance. Rehabbing at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, Kistner heard about a group that played Wheelchair Tennis and joined in their matches. Like many of the onlookers he encounters and educates in present-day, initially Kistner knew little about the sport. Yet it was a chance to build his body into better shape.
“Don’t get me wrong, it took time,” said Kistner, “but I was back in it.”
The hardest adjustment was moving. Tennis — no matter what the format — required quick lateral movement. A fraction of a second could mean the difference between the joy of hitting a cross-court winner and the deflating feeling of watching the ball whizz by.
“You have to hold the racquet while you’re rolling, and people don’t think about it, but how do you hold your racquet while you’re moving your chair?” said Kistner. “You need to have a good grip on the racquet at all times, and also move around quickly.”
Kistner, who now mentors new patients at Magee, developed his game during countless matches, clinics, tournaments and practice sessions since the early 1990s. To this day, he plays in a variety of competitive wheelchair competitions along the east coast.
“John’s just an awesome guy — such a fun person to be around,” said Carol MacLennan, who at one time coached the Magee wheelchair team and has known Kistner for seven years. “He’s always out there, talking on the court and giving directions. He’s a good player, and a really nice person. People look up to him.”
One of Kistner’s best tennis memories came a few years ago, during a wheelchair exhibition at a World TeamTennis match. It was there that he heard the praise of a legend from the sidelines.
“Billie Jean King was behind us while we were hitting balls in doubles, and she said ‘great communication, way to keep talking on the court,’” Kistner recalled. “It’s pretty cool to have a Grand Slam champion compliment your tennis game.
“I’m very fortunate that things have worked out the way they have,” he added. “Tennis gave me a second chance. And getting injured, that gave me a second chance at playing tennis. I can’t imagine, at this point, being without it. I just turned 50, but I don’t feel it. When you’re playing, and being active, you don’t think about it. You just enjoy your time.”
In 1998, the USTA assumed responsibility for wheelchair tennis in America from the National Foundation for Wheelchair Tennis. Since then, the USTA has become the first National Governing Body of both Olympic and Paralympic tennis, governing Paralympics, ParaPan American Games and World Team Cup events.
The USTA remains dedicated to providing top-flight programming and developmental opportunities to wheelchair athletes of all ages and backgrounds willing to learn the sport and have fun.