Originally created 07/25/99

Competing with disabled rewarding

No matter how much I sweat Saturday morning, no matter how dehydrated I felt on the Newman Tennis Center courts playing best two-of-three sets in July's oppressive heat, all I needed for a quick pick-me-up was a passing glance at my partner, Tommy Gates.

Sitting in his wheelchair, Gates kept trying to bolster my confidence, even though I couldn't seem to get a serve in play.

You see, when you've battled polio all your life, it's hard to be depressed about a double fault.

Gates, 41, is a tailor from Decatur, Ga. He contracted polio at the age of 10 months, three years after Jonas Salk's research epiphany but before the vaccine was available to the general public..

He'd lived his life with canes and crutches, his chest about twice the size of his legs. Then with his life seemingly under control, a bout with post-polio struck Gates in 1992. Post-polio is the re-emergence of symptoms 25 to 35 years after recovery from acute polio.

Gates traveled to the Roosevelt Institute in Warm Springs, Ga., for his rehab.That's where his doctors told him to slow his active lifestyle to extend his lifespan.

"I heard that and that's when really I turned it up," Gates said, smiling as he remembered the thought. "I was 34 then. I thought, `That's too young to die."'

So this tailor became a full-time athlete, who just happens to be confined to a wheelchair. Water-skiing, basketball, quad rugby, weightlifting, tennis; anything he could try, he would do.

Tennis is what he's clung to, joining Augusta's Marc Nadel on an Atlanta-based wheelchair team, the Peachtree Pacers.

Gates embodies what these Georgia Games are about, giving athletes from all walks of life the necessary forum to compete.

Tennis is one of the eight events disabled athletes are able to enter. I appeared more upset at our team's two losses during the "one up, one down" bracket than Gates did, but then I remembered that his victory is competing.

Gates didn't need a medal to validate that.

Unlike my brief foray with boxing Friday, mixed doubles tennis afforded a chance for insight and camaraderie. The only thing bruised Saturday was my ego.

For some reason, every forehand swing felt like I was Mark McGwire taking aim at Fenway Park's Green Monster in the midst of a home run-hitting contest.

To be honest, it's not easy to compete against a disabled athlete. The only difference, we are told, is the wheelchair athletes get two bounces to the able-bodied person's one.

Otherwise, do your best to beat the other team. If only it were that simple.

Do you uncork your fastest serve against a guy with cerebral palsy? When struggling for points, do you volley right at a guy's chair? When your opponent drop-shots you, do you try to race it down, or do you let your partner take it on the second bounce?

Is it proper etiquette to even ask about the affliction?

"The last thing we want this to be is the Pity Games," said Rod Spence, 59. "The best thing you can do is treat us like you would treat any other opponent. We're not going to get better if you go soft on us. The only difference between you and me is I'm sitting and you're standing."

Spence, once a triathlete from Marietta, was cycling down Highway 41 when his bike struck two pebbles. The crash threw him into a ditch, breaking two vertebrae. It's been 12 years, and Spence's adjustment to his wheelchair took time.

It didn't ruin his serve, though.

Next up for me: This morning's triathlon, where flippers are not allowed. Spence offered me these words of encouragement: "Look out for rocks."

Rick Dorsey can be reached at (706) 823-3219 or rdorsey@augustachronicle.com.


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