From the ski slopes to the tennis court: How an aspiring Paralympian balances it all
Tennis participation soared in the United States last year as people of all ages sought a safe way to stay active during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Players, new and old, of all ages and ability levels flocked to courts across the country.
Among them? An aspiring Paralympian.
Nineteen-year-old Kyle Taulman has been participating in wheelchair sports since the age of 5, after becoming paralyzed as a result of the Stage 3, high-risk neuroblastoma that wrapped around his spinal cord at age 2. After relocating from Freeport, Illinois to Steamboat Springs, Colo. with his family, the young Taulman ultimately found his athletic niche in para-alpine skiing, and is a prospect to represent Team USA at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing, China.
Having participated in many adaptive sports including tennis in his youth while his mother, Julie, helped to grow them as the executive director of Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) for more than 10 years, Taulman's rediscovery of tennis was prompted by both the pandemic and another relocation.
After his high school graduation, his family moved from up in the mountains to Golden, on the Front Range in the foothills.
"Tennis was a sport that I'd given up on when I was younger because I was being taught in the same way the the able-bodied kids were being taught," he recalls, "but when I was looking for something to do in the summer during COVID, I found a wheelchair tennis camp where they were actually teaching wheelchair tennis. And I started to get into the sport a lot more."
And now? He's all in. After weekly hits on Sundays soon became more frequent, Taulman also invested in a high-performance tennis wheelchair thanks in part to a grant from the Kelly Brush Foundation and help from others at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he is an honors student studying engineering.
Taulman even credits tennis with improving his skiing, a perspective in line with the American Development Model. Advocated for by the USTA and other national governing bodies of sport, the ADM is a youth initiative which focuses on developing well-rounded athletes through multi-sport participation.
"In tennis, you're always constantly moving. You're keeping a figure-eight pattern as much as you can. You have to turn your back to the ball quite a lot and you have to keep watching the ball. One thing that I've really noticed so far about playing more tennis is that it helps my core strength a lot," Taulman said.
"With the complete injury that I have, it's a lot harder for me to work on my core strength in the gym because I just don't have the same balance as some other people. Playing tennis, I feel, has really helped my skiing in that aspect because in tennis, you're pushing all the time, really putting all your power to the push and that takes core strength to do that. I've been able to actually change my skiing and change my entire technique to be a faster skier.
"Now that I have more strength, it allows me to be more dynamic in my movement with my turns, moving forward or backwards for what I need for a different turn. I wouldn't have been able to do that without that strength from tennis."
A seasoned competitor in ski races, Taulman got to put the tennis skills honed on the practice court to the test for the first time when he competed at the 2021 College Wheelchair Tennis Championships at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla. in April.
"I'd never played a tennis tournament at all before, but it was a super fun experience," he said.
"The campus is just beautiful. I haven't been doing tennis for very long, but I can really appreciate athletic campuses because I've been to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid. One of the coolest things of being there was seeing that the courts had live streaming. It was kind of funny, too, because I'm not used to my parents being able to see an entire sport that I do.
"That was a different experience for them. In skiing, you're up on a mountain, so even if they're at the bottom, they can only see a portion of what you're doing. With this, my parents and my grandparents were able to watch [a full match], which was really cool."
Team USA will have a full complement of tennis players competing when the Tokyo Paralympics begin in two weeks, but Taulman is, for now, staying much closer to home. Having already been a mentor for younger athletes while training at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., he's working with a task force at his university to bring more organized adaptive sports - starting with tennis - to Boulder.
But as his focus shifts to the snowy slopes Beijing and beyond, he hopes that the spark he's found on the tennis courts leads to new international stages.
"When I get into something, I like to do it as well as I can. I do a lot of random things, but when I commit to something, I really commit to something. I would not have bought a tennis chair, especially the one that I did, without really wanting to commit time to the sport," he said.
"I think it would be really cool if I could get to a level where I could compete on the world stage, in Opens and things like that, and go to the Paralympics. We'll see if I can get there. I'm hopeful that I can have the skills to get there.
"In Orlando, I was sitting there watching the players and trying to analyze everything that they were doing because that's been something that's really helped me in skiing. Going to a race and seeing some of the best people in the world—people who have just won a gold medal at the Paralympics and you're competing directly against them—that sort of thing can be really daunting in a sport. Training alongside them, seeing what they're doing and getting feedback from them helps you say, 'This is what I have to do to get to where they are,' and you can build those steps in your mind.
"Being at the USTA National Campus and watching the players play was the same. I could see things that they were doing and I thought, 'Oh, that's what I have to do, I have to work on that, I have to work on this.' It's going to take a lot of time, but I want to really commit the time to it as much as I can and get to that level. If I can take it further to a Paralympic level, that'll be awesome. But for now, we'll just see."