Welding Technology Student Making a Name in Wheelchair Tennis

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Taylor Graham gets ready to hit a forehand.
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Taylor Graham hopes to compete in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
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Taylor Graham tapes his racquet to his hand with athletic tape.
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Taylor Graham studied Welding Technology at SCC.

In the course of three years, Taylor Graham has accomplished many things: Survived a motorcycle accident, adjusted to a spinal cord injury and a new life in a wheelchair, picked up the sport of wheelchair tennis, graduated from Southeast Community College, and even got married. So what could possibly be next?

“We have a goal of competing in the Paralympics in 2020,” said Kevin Heim, his wheelchair tennis coach.

Flash back to Aug. 29, 2013. Graham was riding his motorcycle in south Lincoln. It was early in the evening, and he was making a left turn, and he remembers a van with no brake lights, his motorcycle skidding and his body flying through the air. He called it a “God moment.”

“It was an out-of-body experience, it was weird, time had stopped,” he said.

His body hit the van, but he does remember talking to a first responder, even knew her from church (another God moment), and telling her to call his father. He remembers the pain and being strapped onto a gurney. Once the paramedics arrived, things started to fade.

When he woke up in the Intensive Care Unit at Bryan Medical Center West a few days later, he found out he was on breathing support and had collapsed lungs. He was told he had a spinal cord injury and would likely be paralyzed.

“I accepted it,” he said simply. “Having those ‘God moments’ helped with my attitude.”

Once he faced the reality of his future, he was eager to learn everything that he could do. While at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital he met Rick Haith, a recreational therapist who also was in a wheelchair as a result of a car accident.

“I always look for potential in patients,” Haith said. “He reminded me of myself. He had the attitude that he would do anything; bring it on.”

Haith says when individuals become physically disabled in a traumatic way like Graham, they have to overcome physical and emotional hurdles.

“Taylor never experienced that,” Haith said. “He’s very fortunate he didn’t go down the dark hole of emotional issues.”

Haith helped Graham keep busy by working out, introducing him to adaptive sports and enrolling at SCC. While at the College he took a career development course and discovered he wanted to enroll in the Welding Technology program.

“I like how you can be artistic, and it’s hands-on, more manual labor,” he said.

Meanwhile, Haith encouraged him to try competitive wheelchair sports like basketball, golf, bowling, and tennis. Initially he didn’t think he could play tennis because it was difficult to grip the racquet, since he doesn’t have full use of his hands. They discovered that athletic tape would be a helpful tool. Every time he plays, he tapes the racquet to his hand. The more he played, the more he became a fan of the sport.

“I loved tennis more than the other things, so I learned as much as I could.” Graham said. “I like it for the social and health benefits, and it gives me something to look forward to.”

He started playing once a week with other players from Madonna at Woods Park. That evolved into local tournaments and then national tournaments. In October he played at the 2016 U.S. Open USTA Wheelchair Championships in St. Louis, Missouri. He and his partner, Jack Spicer, won the Men’s Wheelchair B Doubles category.

Graham is ranked sixth nationally and has his eye on tournaments in Tucson, Arizona, and Palm Springs, California. He plays both doubles and singles, but prefers singles.

“I like to rely on myself,” he said.

Wheelchair tennis follows the same rules as able-bodied tennis except the wheelchair tennis player is allowed two bounces before they must hit the ball. There are two classifications of wheelchair tennis. Open Class is for those with permanent impairment to one or both legs, but still have the use of their arms. Quad Class is for those with impairment to both arms and legs. Graham plays in both categories.

He takes private weekly lessons from Kevin Heim, executive director of Woods Tennis Center. Heim was able to travel with Graham to the U.S. Open in St. Louis. He says Graham is a quick study and has good mobility in his “sport chair,” which is a type of wheelchair created for sports. Heim says working with wheelchair tennis athletes has changed his whole outlook.

“I used to be the head pro, and I was working a lot of hours and starting to get burned out on the court,” Heim reflected. “It felt like, to me, I was going through the motions.”

Things changed when he started working with wheelchair tennis players.

“I see the game in a whole different way, and it makes me appreciate tennis more,” Heim added.

Heim even got in a wheelchair to figure out what kinds of obstacles players face when they’re playing tennis.

“It challenges me in different coaching ways,” he said.

Heim and Graham are working toward their goal of the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. If they can raise enough money, and if Graham qualifies, nothing will hold them back.

Haith, also a graduate of SCC, remembers when he could beat Graham at tennis. Those days are over, he said, and he’s not surprised Graham has become so good so fast.

“He has all the potential in the world,” Haith said. “He puts in the work and the effort. He can knock down any obstacle in front of him. That’s rare.”

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For more information contact:
Andrea Gallagher Haggar
Marketing Specialist
402-323-3395
ahaggar@southeast.edu