Wheelchair tennis among programs thriving at Woods Tennis Center
The motto of Woods Tennis Center is "Taking the game to the community," and the largest public tennis facility in the city of Lincoln, Neb. is doing just that under the direction of Kevin Heim.
"We pride ourselves on comprehensive programing for all ages and all ability levels, leagues, tournaments, all the USTA programing, all of it," says Heim, who notes that participants have, at times, traveled as far as 90 miles for tennis instruction at Woods Park's not-for-profit facility, which has offered programming to residents since 1985.
The work being done at Woods is emblematic of how recreational tennis at public parks has thrived over the course of the past year-plus in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. Owing to its status as the ideal social distancing sport, tennis participation in the U.S. rose 22% in 2020, and welcomed 3 million new players.
But the seeds of success at Woods were planted long before that.
Since becoming executive director in 2008, Heim has transformed Woods in more ways than one. He restructured the center's programming schedule and expanded its offerings, hired more staff and oversaw a $6.6 million capital campaign five years ago that built six new indoor courts and revitalized outdoor space.
Building a thriving wheelchair tennis community at Woods, though, is closest to Heim's heart. That passion dates back to his days as a varsity student-athlete at Midland University in Fremont, Neb., where he lived with a quadriplegic roommate in his senior year.
"That was the first time that my eyes were opened to life for people in a wheelchair," he said, "and how they can live extremely productive lives."
While teaching and coaching in Nebraska after college, Heim caught the eye of Grand Slam champion Nick Taylor—"He has his eyes on everything," Heim recalls—who invited him to a regional camp he was hosting in Wichita, Kan. It was there that Heim first met USTA wheelchair coaches Jason Harnett, Paul Walker and John Devorss and the opportunity to coach at the USTA himself soon followed.
"I think we all get the big picture for wheelchair tennis," Heim said. "Professionally, it's still only around 40 years old, and there's still so much growth to be made. I feel really fortunate to be a part of the team with those guys. Because we're dealing with a smaller segment of the population, it takes just one person or one group to light a fire that just grows, because we know that there are people are out there waiting for it. They want opportunities, but they don't know what's available or what's out there."
As one of 10 Net Generation Wheelchair Regional Providers across the country, Heim more than does his part to grow wheelchair tennis close to home. He runs both adult and junior programming at Woods, and has leveraged the center's longstanding relationship with Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, which has utilized the facility's open recreation hours to introduce its brain injury, spinal cord injury and stroke patients to tennis, for the past decade. As a national coach for the USTA, Heim has twice coached the U.S. quad team in World Team Cup competition, leading the Americans to a bronze medal in 2018 and a silver medal this fall. He also guided Kaitlyn Verfuerth, a Wisconsin native, to a Top 10 world ranking and three Paralympic selections.
"I'll work with anybody if they have aspirations and they want to take their tennis to another level," Heim said. "I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to work with entry-level players and people that are literally just trying to make contact with the ball and find ways to hit it—when they just hit the ball back three or four times, and you see that light go on for them, the thrill of playing tennis and how excited they are—but also coaching at the national level or the international level coaching at the World Team Cup. They're some of the most phenomenal athletes in the world. That's what really lights it up for me, having the opportunity to do it from the beginning to the end."
With waitlists to register for both its private and group able-bodied lessons, Heim says that nearly 7,000 paying patrons of all ages have come to play tennis at Woods some time over the past five years, and that those numbers don't even include participants in the high school matches and USTA tournaments that the facility also hosts.
The barometer for wheelchair growth at Woods is more measured, owing to the fact that the pool of athletes to draw from is naturally smaller, but Heim's checklist for healthy tennis participation remains the same.
Appeal to all ages? Their youngest wheelchair player is age 8, and their oldest is a retiree in his late 60s.
Variety of instruction? Since Heim arrived, adult wheelchair play has gone from a social endeavor to regionally and nationally competitive, and a weekly junior clinic has been held each summer for six years.
Host competitions? In 2017, Woods played host to the inaugural Lincoln Adult Open Walk 'N Roll Classic, which combined two longtime tennis events in the area: the able-bodied Lincoln Adult Open and the Capital City Classic, a wheelchair event. More recently, Heim welcomed more than a dozen players to Woods for the smaller USTA NE L4 Lincoln Wheelchair Classic in August, helping bring wheelchair tennis back to the Midwest after the pandemic put many area tournaments on pause.
Tennis was love at first sight for Heim more than 30 years ago, and he hopes to pass that on to future generations through his dedicated service to the sport in the present.
"Our goals are to provide opportunities for anybody who is interested in learning the lifetime sport of tennis," Heim said. "It's about growing the relationships with the community at Woods, and the numbers [of participants] follow that. Our philosophy here as a public facility is that we want to offer comprehensive programs for everyone, from the entry-level people into the different levels.
"We grow wheelchair tennis in the same way we grow able-bodied tennis. If we have a bigger pool, you're going to get good players and the cream will rise to the top. If you know how to coach, then you can make them even better. We're trying to grow the number of coaches, especially able-bodied coaches, and show them that there's a whole other segment of the population to get involved and engaged.
"Inclusion is part of the culture here at Woods Tennis Center in everything that we do... They're all just here to come and learn to play tennis, and our job is to share the sport with them."
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