Celebrating 20 Years of the Wheelchair Tennis Collegiate National Championships
For the month of May, USTA.com is celebrating National Mobility Awareness Month by highlighting some of the American players, events, influencers and trailblazers who make wheelchair tennis special. Up next is a two-part retrospective on the genesis of collegiate wheelchair tennis, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Wheelchair Collegiate National Championships, which would've been held this year. In Part I, we look back at the beginnings of the event, how it came to be, and how this went hand-in-hand with history being made at Georgia State University.
The Wheelchair Collegiate National Championships would’ve celebrated a milestone in 2020, as the 20th edition of the event was set to take place this year from April 16-19 at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.
While the last-completed championship in 2019 boasted the largest pool of competitors in history, the event grew from humble beginnings according to legendary coach Charles ‘Chuck’ McCuen, who played an integral part in its history as the architect of a first-of-its-kind wheelchair tennis team at Georgia State University during the 1999-2000 school year.
Following the 1996 Atlanta Olympic and Paralympic Games, which utilized some of Georgia State’s facilities, the school received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Disabled Athletes Fund, the legacy foundation of the Games, and BlazeSports America, a national nonprofit that provides adaptive sport opportunities for children and adults, to build a wheelchair tennis program.
McCuen, who had been coaching the school's men’s tennis team since 1983, was asked to help build it, and ultimately, he brought four world-class players to campus for the inaugural team: Derek Bolton, Michael Foulks, Tiffany Geller-Reed and Karin Korb.
Each player held an ITF tour ranking, while Foulks, Geller-Reed (née Geller) and Korb pursued master’s degrees. They also practiced and trained alongside the school’s men's and women's teams, and competed at wheelchair tennis events both at home and abroad.
But McCuen, a self-described lifer in college tennis, and others soon realized there might be also be a unique opportunity to create a team competition for these athletes, similar to the opportunity that their able-bodied peers received annually at NCAA Championships.
“There were so many wonderful folks at different institutions who were also students at the time,” McCuen recalled. “There were a lot of individuals across the country... who were wheelchair tennis players of high caliber, but they didn’t have teams at their universities.
“With some brainstorming between the leaders of that era, the players and the help of the USTA, they came up with what may have been one of the first events that was like a collegiate tournament. If you were on a university or college campus, taking classes as a student, then you were qualified to participate.
“We sent our team up there and they did exceptionally well, but it was fun because each team may have been sending one player. It was all pretty special and truly a grassroots event.”
Though the competitors themselves were few in number, the athletes also recognized that they were a part of a something memorable.
"It was a small tournament, but it was fun to be able to compete as a team," Geller-Reed added. "That was a new experience for me, just to be a part of our own team... It was a cool thing that wasn't done at all at that time."
Story continues below photo gallery of collegiate wheelchair athletes through the years.
In the two decades since the event informally began, it has seen exponential growth.
Held in Orlando since the 2017-18 school year, the current format consists of three tiers of singles play for men’s, women’s and quad division players, and an overall team championship. With eight schools from six USTA sections competing last year, the University of Alabama captured the team title. Alabama owns five national crowns, and nearly a dozen schools are represented amongst the event’s all-time individual winners.
"What I remember was the commitment of so many people making it happen," Korb, who went on to be a two-time Paralympian for Team USA in 2000 and 2004, said. "[Longtime USTA wheelchair advocate and committee member] Jeannie Peabody, a fierce crusader of wheelchair tennis; [former U.S. Paralympic coach] Dan James; [former wheelchair tennis player and coach] Michael Cottingham, just to name a few. We had to work relentlessly on getting the buy-in from those who were and are decision-makers.
"My reflections sit with deep gratitude for those who have fostered its growth—from seeing so many new athletes who have embraced collegiate tennis, who have come from different sports who may have never thought of playing tennis seriously, to how tirelessly those who have championed this movement have worked."
And 20 years on, even McCuen found his way back to the championship.
After his tenure at Georgia State, McCuen moved on to Clemson University in 2003 and served as an assistant coach, and later, head coach of the men’s tennis program until 2016. After moving into an operations role, he returned to wheelchair tennis and is now working on laying the foundations of the Tigers' wheelchair program, which began last year.
READ MORE: Wheelchair Tennis Spotlight: Chuck McCuen
“My name came up that I’d coached wheelchair tennis in the past… and it’s sort of full-circle,” he said.
“Folks here have worked so hard and so diligently to fundraise, to get scholarships through the university and to promote wheelchair tennis at Clemson. I’m so appreciative of Clemson and their willingness to embrace this. They’ve really bought in, and I think exponentially, we’ll see more and more growth. It’s really fun.
“We’re reaching out to some of the best wheelchair athletes in the world… and we’re branching out into different areas. Clemson also has a very rich military history, and we’re very involved with the Wounded Warrior Project and have veterans on campus. I’ve already brought on a couple of injured soldiers, and it’s been so powerful to hear their stories, to try and encourage them to get back into school and to get into wheelchair tennis as an option.
“Twenty years on, I wish that there were 25, 50 wheelchair teams, but the fact that the [collegiate championship] event is still alive, still prospering and growing, it’s so encouraging. The University of Alabama is the pinnacle right now and they’re doing wonderful things.
“I’m hoping that the more that these institutions grow, with scholarships and exposure, I’m hoping that more wheelchair athletes who are on the fringes will see the benefits of coming to a university and being part of a team. With this great sport, these great athletes and all that they have put into this and will continue to do… there are avenues and scholarships that are starting to open up to take advantage of. I just want to encourage all the young folks to get out there and play. It’s all about exposure with anything, and knowledge is powerful.”
Next week, Part II of our look back at the birth of collegiate wheelchair tennis continues with an in-depth look how Georgia State pioneered its program with more insights from coach Chuck McCuen and teammates Karin Korb and Tiffany Geller-Reed.
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