WHEELCHAIR TENNIS

Paralympics added to résumé

2012-08-12T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T16:06:23Z Paralympics added to résuméPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 12, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Bryan Barten had called "shotgun," entitling him to a spot in the front passenger seat of his friend's Dodge Stealth twin turbo. But it was dumping rain in Michigan that day in 1997, and another buddy sent him to the backseat rather than debate and get wet.

Barten did not wear a seat belt.

Around the corner from his home, the Dodge skidded across the slick road, slamming Barten into a light post.

He spent two weeks in intensive care and four months in rehab and is now paralyzed below the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. His friends in the front seat weren't badly injured, he said.

"When you go through life, you usually never realize a moment that's changing your life when it happens," he said.

But he could feel the change.

The once-active Michigan State student was bored in a wheelchair, he said. He decided one day to hit a few tennis balls. The girl doing the serving was cute.

"I just fell in love with it," he said. "I was practicing so much. I kept playing, and I started to get good."

In 14 years of playing, the 38-year-old has appeared on seven U.S. national teams. He traveled the world, from Australia to Japan to Turkey to Western Europe, to play, and, for the past five years, has coached the Arizona Wildcats wheelchair tennis and wheelchair rugby teams full time.

"But I never made it to the Paralympics, for one reason or the other," he said.

Until now.

Ranked No. 9 in the world, he was placed on the United States quad tennis team in June. Quad players are defined as those with impairment in three limbs. The sport has similar rules to tennis, but the ball can bounce twice before a point is awarded.

Last week, Barten and Noah Yablong, a former UA player who graduated this year with an engineering degree, trained for the Paralympics with their American teammates in Minneapolis.

When they arrive in London in 12 days, they'll see Australian Adam Kellerman, another former Wildcats player, among the 112 tennis competitors from 30 countries competing at the newly built, 10,500-seat Eton Manor in Olympic Park.

"This is the pinnacle of wheelchair tennis," Barten said.

When Yablong was 10, he was diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease in his right hip. Now 24, he will participate in the men's open division, wheelchair tennis those with one or two impaired limbs.

Both Americans are first-time Paralympians.

"I'm definitely really excited," Yablong said. "I've never been to an event of this caliber."

Yablong, an Indiana native, spent time last month training near his parents' home in Ocean Ridge, Fla.

"I've gotten to know Bryan really well the past couple of years, with him being the coach at the U of A," he said. "To be honest, it'll be nice to see my friends. Beyond the event itself, it'll be fun seeing the people I know."

The tennis events start Sept. 1.

"Noah, he's got a good heart," said Barten. "He works hard. That's what I like about him. He's just a good guy."

After getting hooked on the sport, Barten transferred to the UA, considered to have one of the nation's greatest adaptive athletics programs.

There, a coach convinced him to tape his racket to his right hand - his wrist isn't strong enough to consistently hit topspin shots - and his game improved.

He rolls his specialized chair - which contains a small rear balancing mechanism - with both hands, punching at the right wheel with his taped hand.

Since the accident, he has been unable to sweat. So Barten dumps water over his head or puts ice in his hat - or, on hot days, both - while being careful not to moisten the tape on his hand.

"I don't give up," he said. "I never give up at anything. It's one of those things where it's a flaw sometimes."

Barten, who will be one of 16 competitors in the quad division, might slow down after the Paralympics but will continue to coach the UA. He won't rule out a return in four years.

"He has fun playing," said his wife, Jessica van der Lede. "If he didn't have fun doing it, he wouldn't be doing it."

Yablong, who will be one of 64 competitors, has a plan for after the Olympics.

Like most his age, the UA engineering management major will look for a job.

"Being a Paralympian," he said, "is definitely on my résumé."

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