Amputee eyes recognition for adaptive tennis
Amputee tennis pro pushes for recognition of adaptive sport
Jeff Bourns of Clear Lake City, who lost a leg as a child afer being diagnosed with tethered spinal cord syndrome, is pushing to have adaptive tennis — in which amputees play standing up rather than in a wheelchair — sanctioned by the sport’s governing body.
Professional tennis players travel with multiple rackets, pairs of shoes and other gear. Add to Jeff Bourns’ packing list Allen wrenches and sockets. But he’s no handyman. He’s an amputee, and a socket is the part of his prosthesis that affixes to his residual limb.
“Gaining or losing 10 to 15 pounds, a change in altitude, weather — your residual limb or amputated leg can change in mass. Then it does not fit the same in the socket as before, possibly causing ulcers and cuts. I travel with two to three different sockets I have saved over the years that normally keep me covered if a situation like this comes up. The baggage fee though,” he jokes.
Bourns (pronounced “burns”), of Clear Lake City, is ranked No. 4 in his category on the TAP World Tour, an international adaptive tennis circuit whose players are amputees or have another disability affecting the limbs, or have survived a stroke. As opposed to wheelchair tennis, these competitors play standing. The league was organized in 2015 in Santiago, Chile (TAP is the acronym for Tenis Adaptivo de Pie, or stand-up adaptive tennis in Spanish).
The 37-year-old, born
without a right tibia, made it to the quarterfinal round in that inaugural tournament; his best showing came this February, when he reached the semifinals of the Malmo Open in Sweden.
As competitive as he is on the court, Bourns is taking a swing at something else these days: the sanctioning of stand-up adaptive tennis from the International Tennis Federation and the International Paralympic Committee. Whereas wheelchair tennis is a Paralympic sport and has a division at Wimbledon, tennis’ premiere event, stand-up or “ambulatory” adaptive tennis isn’t yet officially recognized.
To that end, in 2016, Bourns helped organize the USA TAP Open and had Houston play host. Twenty-nine participants from 11 countries competed — and began to legitimize this version of the game.
“It was the first time an international tournament, the way we play, was played in the United States. It is our championship tournament on tour,” Bourns says. More players are expected when the third annual USA TAP Open returns Dec. 7-9 to Life Time Galleria Tennis.
Cindy Benzon, adaptive/ wheelchair tennis coordinator for the U.S. Tennis Association’s Texas chapter, helped Bourns establish the event and encouraged him to join her group’s adaptive committee, on which he still serves. She says Bourns is well suited to creating awareness.
“It takes years to prove to the Paralympic Committee and ITF that this is a growing sport, and this is going to happen,” Benzon says, noting that at the first USA TAP Open, the USTA was “completely blown away by the level of play. These players could beat an able-bodied, (advanced) player.”
Bourns’ coach, Irwin Montalvo, says the USTA seeing Bourns and the other players, with their “exceptional footwork” and “being able to put the ball anywhere on a court, on a dime,” was a big selling point.
Endorsed by Babolat, a major racket manufacturer, Bourns is aiming to “shift public perception of adaptive sports as a charity to marketing as sporting events.”
Not that Bourns ever considered himself a charity case.
When he was 8, doctors diagnosed tethered spinal cord syndrome, meaning a tumor was pulling his spinal cord down while he was growing upward. Risky surgery to remove the tumor went well, but then he developed spinal meningitis. After he recovered, his childhood was filled with the usual kid stuff, such as riding his bike.
Patrick Niemeyer, a friend since third grade, can’t recall anyone in elementary or intermediate school beating Bourns at chin-ups. When they played football, “he was always a great competitor.
“He never missed a step in any activity, and to be honest, my other friends and I never really thought about the fact he was an amputee,” the Friendswood resident says. “Where he was lacking in one area was made up in others, such as his upper-body strength and attitude.”
Adaptive sports weren’t widespread back then, and Bourns played against able-bodied opponents as part of the Clear Brook High School tennis team. It wasn’t until 2001, while a student at the University of Houston, that Bourns took part in the Endeavor Games in Oklahoma and met amputee peers.
Since then Bourns became a father (to son Parker, now 13) and continued to play, even as health problems cropped up. Following back surgery in 2013, Bourns researched amputee tennis programs to use as rehab; he couldn’t find any. Instead he joined a wheelchair tennis class at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center but played standing. The city facility now offers stand-up adaptive tennis, thanks to Bourns and others.
Tennis often is referred to as a game of adjustments — for Bourns, the adage rings especially true. This year, a bone infection led to the amputation of three toes. Each time Bourns has an injury or procedure, it affects the way he plants his foot. In the past, he would just play injured, but now “I can’t mistreat my body.”
At Bay Area Racquet Club, Montalvo, his coach for a little more than a year, rattles off Bourns’ assets. “He’s pretty tough. He heals faster than anyone I know. His backhand is the stronger shot because he can lean into his good leg,” he explains.
Learning goes both ways, according to Montalvo. “He’s taught me not to ever quit.” He smiles when asked if Bourns is easy to coach. “Jeff can be a little stubborn. But top athletes are very stubborn.”
As he turns to advocacy, Bourns touts tennis’ benefits: footwork, hand-eye coordination, and “if you are having a frustrating day, you can always go out and crush a few (balls) around!”
And he says standing adaptive players owe a debt of gratitude to the wheelchair pioneers.
“The goal we are all working toward is that of inclusion. We are playing a sport we all enjoy, and it does not matter how we decide to play it, as long as we are having fun,” he says. “We need to begin working with wheelchair tennis and learning how for 40 years they have fought to get where they are today. … Without them, opportunities for us now would not exist.”
Bourns sees the need for mentors with disabilities, which he never had. “This way you don’t feel like the only color Skittle in the package.”
He knows stand-up adaptive tennis’ day probably won’t come before he hangs up his racket. Still, he’s hopeful because momentum is building for the next generation. “No sports really start with a lot of money, just trophies with someone’s name on them.”
Perhaps it won’t be long before someone standing on a socketed leg hoists the Jeff Bourns Championship Trophy.