Mobility Month: The First Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Team, 20 Years Later
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 have been held this year. Part II explores how Georgia State University put together a first-of-its-kind wheelchair tennis team starting in the 1999-2000 school year. For Part I, click here.
In the aftermath of the 1996 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Georgia State University made history by sponsoring a competitive wheelchair tennis program.
When asked to describe how it was all possible without a blueprint, longtime tennis coach Charles ‘Chuck’ McCuen, pauses for a moment before saying, “We were writing our own script.”
Having seen its gymnasium used for badminton and goalball, respectively, GSU was the recipient of a $100,000 grant in partnership with BlazeSports America, a national nonprofit that helps provide opportunities in sports for youth and adults with disabilities, which helped the school create what was the first-ever organized wheelchair tennis program in the country.
McCuen, who had been a member of the university community since 1983 as the coach of the men’s tennis team and involved in tennis since he was 15, was asked to take the leap into being the wheelchair coach by administrators and professors from the school’s biomechanics lab.
"Was I scared? Yes. I knew nothing about the sport,” he said. “I watched a little bit of it to prepare. I was able to travel around to different events, and the more I watched, and when I met these wonderful folks, I knew I was going to do it.”
Accustomed to traveling to scout talent for his NCAA tennis team, McCuen used a portion of the grant for a similar “recruiting budget,” and traveled to high-level wheelchair tennis tournaments around the country. One such trip took the coach to the Lakeshore Foundation World Challenge, which was, at a time, an event on the ITF wheelchair tour in Birmingham, Ala.
“If we were going to be the first program, I wanted to try to get the best wheelchair athletes, students and people that we could possibly attract to Georgia State,” he continued.
“I knew that part of this would be coaching and helping these student-athletes get better and better, and achieve their goals on the tour or in playing [tennis]—but it was also an opportunity for them to get either an undergraduate degree or, in many cases, a graduate degree to further their education, and to help promote the sport.”
It was in Birmingham that McCuen met Karin Korb, who was already making a name for herself on the international circuit. Born in Germany but raised in New Jersey, Korb was a gymnast in her youth before becoming paralyzed in a vaulting accident as a teenager. She picked up wheelchair tennis at the age of 27, and was in the world's Top 25 when she and McCuen first crossed paths in Birmingham.
“There were rumblings that this guy, this coach was putting together a collegiate team and he was going to be at this tournament,” Korb recalled.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I see that guy, I’m gonna make sure he chooses a woman to be on that team because they always choose men,’ never thinking it would be me. There was a player lounge set up at the tournament with couches, and Chuck McCuen sat next to me. I didn’t know it was him at the time, but in his ever-so-friendly way, he turned to me and introduced himself… and I’m pretty sure I said, out loud, ’Oh, you’re the guy,’ in my New Jersey undertone.
“I literally said something to the effect of, ‘I know you’re creating this team, and I would encourage you to include women… Title IX, you know, and there are so many amazing women to choose from that are right here!’”
The team was rounded out by Tiffany Geller-Reed (née Geller), Derek Bolton and Michael Foulks. Later on, Germany's Kai Schrameyer, who was the world No. 1 men's wheelchair singles player in 1993 and a friend of Foulks, also joined the fold to earn his master's degree.
“We practiced every day, we rooted for each other, we watched each other, we traveled together—usually, you're a solo player, so that was cool,” Geller-Reed, a native of Lansing, Mich., who'd earned a bachelor's degree at Northwood University in Midland, Mich., said.
“We traveled to other tournaments, and although you still competed for yourself, we wore our Georgia State outfits and represented Georgia State."
McCuen coached all three of Georgia State's tennis teams during the wheelchair program's inaugural season, having also taken on the women's team in an interim capacity. His days were structured around practice, with each team getting their own slot, and all three teams had their own competitive schedules.
In addition to practicing, competing and attending classes, the student-athletes also worked on behalf of the U.S. Disabled Athletes Fund, and helped put on wheelchair tennis camps and clinics, according to Geller-Reed.
The common link for all three teams? According to McCuen, it was a family atmosphere: "I even remember taking my daughter in the van with us on road trips."
“This is the powerful part of what adaptive sports does for all of us and what this wheelchair team did for our able-bodied teams, and I mean this with all sincerity: to this day, these wheelchair players still keep in touch with that generation of able-bodied players,” McCuen continued.
“I’ll never forget the look, the first time the wheelchair players came out and were training and busting their butts, and the [men’s and women’s NCAA] players were in awe. They were speechless… and over that period of time, the respect that these young scholarship tennis athletes gained for our wheelchair tennis athletes, the mentoring that went on, the friendships that were formed, that’s when those teams really started to excel.
“We started winning conference championships, started going to NCAAs, and as I reflect, I give the wheelchair players all the credit. It wasn’t my coaching, ever. It’s what they did. There were no excuses. Overnight, there were none, and it was so powerful, and energizing, for me to witness.”
And that opportunity to socialize and compete as a team, often given as one of the major benefits of collegiate competition in an individual sport such as tennis, was not lost on the wheelchair student-athletes.
“As someone who broke their back while I was a junior in high school, I didn’t have the experience of a collegiate athletic career until my time at GSU,” Korb said.
"There were so many things I learned. Most people have no idea how difficult it is to create balance in one’s life while being a student-athlete. Training was also my favorite part. There was nothing like a Coach McCuen workout—it was body, mind and spirit… and so much of who I am today is because of him. I think really good coaches impart that kind of wisdom on you, way more than hitting the little yellow ball.
“Being embraced by the university was really solid, too. It was such a privilege to be in the academic environment and all the relationships that I was able to create, both personally and professionally.”
Looking back on the path they forged 20 years later, in celebration of what would have been two decades of the USTA Wheelchair Collegiate National Championships, McCuen also recognized that his players left their biggest legacy off the court—a role they still have today as coaches, administrators and advocates in the sport.
“The one amazing thing that I’ll always remember, and that truly changed my life, was how powerful those individuals were: their speaking skills, their intellect, their skillset and the way that they were able to connect instantly with any audience that we were in front of,” he said.
“You had some of the best wheelchair tennis players in the world, all together, training and learning and growing up, and it was pretty powerful. These past players changed my life forever, they really did. I’m a different person because of my relationship with them.
“They were truly the best ambassadors that I’ve ever seen, and that was a powerful thing.”
Photo above: Men's, women's and wheelchair tennis teams at Georgia State University. (Courtesy of Chuck McCuen and personal archives)