Growing the game: Team USA joins wheelchair tennis clinic at Virginia Tech

Victoria Chiesa | November 23, 2021

The fledgling wheelchair tennis program at Virginia Tech was elevated to the national spotlight earlier this month when Team USA head coach Jason Harnett and players Chris Herman, Dana Mathewson, Casey Ratzlaff and Conner Stroud paid a special visit to Blacksburg to inspire the next generation of players.


Over the last six months, the Virginia Tech men's tennis team has hosted a small, weekly wheelchair tennis clinic on a volunteer basis for players of all ages to grow the sport at the grassroots level with an eye towards creating a competitve team in the future. Those players and others in the university community had the chance to see the world's best up close on Sunday, Nov. 14, when Herman, Mathewson, Ratzlaff and Stroud came to town for a special showcase and clinic, where they played an exhibition doubles match and gave athletes one-on-one instruction on court.


"I think it just brought a lot of attention to the sport, how good it can be and how awesome it was for the kids that we have in our group," said head coach Jim Thompson. "Those kids were so excited, motivated and touched by the event that I think it'll help them in their development for the future. They're the future of the wheelchair sport in the long-term."


Story continues below photo gallery. Photo credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics.

The presence of world-class players on campus is Thompson's long-time vision come to life. He first became passionate about wheelchair tennis years ago when he was introduced to Parker Burgard, who has spinia bifida and uses both a wheelchair and crutches, through his wife, B'easy, a school psychologist in Radford. As a young child, Parker first played tennis with Frank Thompson, Jim and B'easy's son, and now at age 8, is one of the most enthusiastic participants in the Hokies' weekly clinics along with 11-year-old Drew Lucas.


It's come full-circle for Frank Thompson, too. Now a freshman student-athlete for his dad, he coaches the weekly clinics with teammates Michael Shepheard and Jordan Chrysostom.

"We're learning more from Drew and Parker than Parker and Drew are learning from us," says the elder Thompson, who's coached at Virginia Tech for more than 20 years, "... and I just assumed that there are more people in wheelchairs that could benefit from this."


It was that thought that led him to reconnect with Harnett, who'd kept close tabs on what Thompson was doing since the clinics started in earnest over a year ago. Put on pause as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, they restarted in May, and Thompson was looking for ways to spread the word outside of the Blacksburg area and increase participation.


Harnett's enthusiastic support, coupled with that of 29-year-old Jacob Tyree, a former U.S. national wheelchair basketball player and USTA Mid-Atlantic, spread the word locally, and led to more than 100 people attending. In addition, Sportable, a Richmond-based adaptive sports club, provided specialized sports wheelchairs for participants to use.


"I called Jason and I said, 'I have this idea that you come and put on an exhibition so that people can see how good these players are. It could create an additional buzz around what we're doing and help us move in the right direction,'" Thompson said. "His commitment to bring the athletes here, to believe in what I'm trying to do... we don't get the attention unless Team USA was here. It was unbelievable commitment from them to come up for a weekend, spend it in our community and showcase [tennis] like this."


Participants hailed from nearby Virigina cities including Richmond and Lynchburg and from other states including West Virginia and Maryland. Outside of the men's and women's varsity tennis teams, it was also supported by the broader university community at-large, including Virginia Tech president Dr. Timothy Sans; his wife Laura Prouty Sands, a faculty member in gerontology and human development; vice president for student affairs Frank Shushok and his family; Charles Adair, head coach of the women's soccer team; and athletic director Wit Babcock.

Thompson says his long-term goal is to leverage that support into an intercollegiate wheelchair tennis team at Virginia Tech, drawing inspiration from other successful programs like the University of Alabama, and the current curriculum that's taught on campus. Pointing to staff like Kelly McPherson, who recently began a course in which students learn how to teach adaptive sports, Thompson says that the environment in Blacksburg is set up for adaptive athletes to thrive.


"I think it all goes hand-in-hand, and [the attendance of university administration] speaks volumes of the commitment and interest, at least so far, of pushing this forward. Without it, nothing happens," Thompson says of the university-wide support. 


"I can be passionate about it all I want, but if the key people at the university don't have an interest in having this in our program, we probably won't have it. It meant a lot that they came. Obviously, we showcased the best wheelchair tennis possible. These are the best athletes in the in the U.S. and in the world, so I think they were blown away by how good they were, and how great of ambassadors players like this could be for our university. 


"The idea is for us to start a team on campus that can eventually play at nationals. We won't be the best team at nationals at the beginning, but we want to say, 'Virginia Tech's coming in, we're going to have a good team and a program that's supportive of it.'


"We're hopeful that something like this gets people's attention that we want to have a program, and that we want to have not only tennis, but a whole adaptive sports program at Virginia Tech in the future. This was a great, great way to start that."

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