Heart of a Champion
The obstacles one encounters in life can often seem insurmountable. For 13-year-old tennis player Conner Stroud, it’s easy to point to his lack of hips or feet as a reason to abstain from playing the game he loves so much. But, in reality, his biggest hurdle on the court has nothing to do with his physical limitations. For the Spindale, NC, native, it’s the mental side of tennis that’s been his toughest opponent.
The Formative Years
Conner was born on April 7, 2000 a bit different than most. He suffered from Bilateral Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency, a birth defect that caused him to be born without hips, ankles, femurs or knees. Essentially he had only his tibia and feet from the waist down. Of the few affected by this rare condition, only 15 percent have both legs affected the way Conner does.
By age 2, Conner’s parents, Rita and Dewey Stroud, decided after consulting with doctors it would be best to have his two feet removed. Born with no ankles, there was little Conner could do with his feet. He underwent a half-amputee surgery in which doctors removed the front half of his feet, leaving only his heels.
The decision to perform the surgery was one of the most difficult the Stroud’s have ever had to make. As Rita explained, the doctors were unsure whether he’d ever be able to walk again, and believed he would likely be restricted to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. Fortunately for the Stroud family, Conner’s resiliency is unlike anything they’ve ever witnessed.
All in the Family
Tennis has always played a significant role in the Stroud family. Dewey played numerous tournaments in Georgia as a junior before becoming a part of the Clemson Tigers tennis program in the 1970s. Rita, who met Dewey at Clemson, currently teaches tennis with her husband at Peach Tree Racquet Club in Forest City, NC. They also donate much of their time to help coach local high school players at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in nearby Mooresboro.
“We’ve just always loved this sport because it’s a lifetime sport and it’s so healthy for you, both your mind and body,” Rita says.
Conner’s older brother and sister are also no strangers to the game of tennis. His sister Whitney was a standout player at Mars Hill College where she was named to the South Atlantic All-Conference second team in 2007. She currently resides with her husband in Asheville where she plays in local leagues. His older brother, Taylor, played tennis until middle school before he discovered his passion for cross country running. He ran for the Appalachian State University cross country team.
But it was at his parents’ club that Conner first developed his love for tennis.
“We were at the tennis club just about every day, so it was either just sit there or start playing,” Rita says. “He’s always loved it and genuinely enjoys it more than any other kid I’ve ever worked with.”
Conner began playing tennis when he was 4 years old. His mother ardently tried to persuade him to play wheelchair tennis, thinking it would be easier for him to be competitive. He quickly proved her wrong.
“When he was younger, I never thought he would play tournaments like he has; I always thought maybe someday he’d just play wheelchair tennis,” Rita said. “But he was so driven to play and compete in tournaments. I was concerned it would be too hard for him at first. Obviously, you don’t want your kid to struggle and I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to compete. Winning isn’t everything, but I wasn’t sure he’d even be able to win a point.”
After years of perfecting his swing, Conner began to play in 8 and Under tournaments. It didn’t take long for him to experience success. He won his very first tournament playing doubles with a friend. In his next tournament, he played singles for the first time. He won that tournament, too. Winning, however, didn’t come without hard work and training. Because Conner was born without hips, it is very difficult for him to perform basic moves, like turning sideways. With his lateral movement compromised, he’s had to make adjustments.
“Everything is just so diff erent for him, especially the trajectory,” Rita says. “When he hits, he is way below the net. So he has to go up and over the net before it even begins to come down on the other side. Without the hips, not being able to turn as much as a normal person has also been a challenge.”
During his eight years of playing, Conner has encountered many challenges. But contrary to what one might believe, it’s not his physical attributes that have been his toughest obstacles, it’s the mental game.
“The most frustrating thing is being unable to get to the ball when people hit it away from me,” Conner says. “All I can do is try to stay positive and not let it get to me.”
It’s the battle within that Rita believes has molded her son into such a strong person and inspiration to many.
“Sometimes he struggles to stay positive,” Rita says. “I mean, someone will hit a nice shot to his side, and it might not be that far from him, but he can’t physically get to it like most people.”
Conner hasn’t let those struggles hinder his attitude, which is why he’s such a sensation throughout the tennis community. People of all ages gravitate toward his infectious personality.
“He always draws a crowd,” Rita says. “That’s why he’s such a good sport, because he knows I’ll get on him if he acts up. People don’t remember the best player at the tournament, they remember him. He’s so fun to watch because he is so small and people are just amazed by his skills and the way he handles himself.”
It is because of the way he handles adversity on and off the court that in 2012 USTA North Carolina presented Conner with its Hal Southern Junior Male Tennis Sportsmanship Award for the 12s division.
Moment of a Lifetime: Conner got to meet his favorite player a day after getting his first chance to see Rafael Nadal compete in person (“It was awesome to finally see him play,” Conner said), on the first day of the 2013 US Open. Nadal greeted Conner with a handshake and rub on the head and afterward thanked him for coming and for his support.
Despite his success on the court at an early age, Conner realizes his stretch of playing “normal tennis” is coming to an end. As players continue to mature at his age level, he’s noticed his short legs will only allow him to do so much.
“I can hit with people my age just fine and even hit harder than most of them,” Conner says. “But they can place the ball away from me and it’s difficult for me to get to them.”
Two summers ago, Conner and his family attended a national wheelchair tournament in Hilton Head, SC, where he talked to athletes and picked up pointers. Although adjusting to wheelchair tennis is no easy task, Conner says he’s up to the challenge.
“It’s been really difficult to learn to steer and swing at the same time,” Conner said. “But I’ve got pretty used to it playing against my dad, who bought a wheelchair of his own to play alongside me. In fact, I’m even beating him now.”
It’s that extraordinary spirit and dedication that earned him USTA North Carolina’s 2012 Peggy Golden Spirit Award.
Bite of Life
Today, Conner’s friends and family don’t even look at him as handicapped. He radiates confidence and moves around like everyone else—he’s just a bit shorter.
“He’s just so strong and handles his situation very well,” Rita says. “Kids are always following him around, staring and asking questions. He just takes it all in stride. In fact, he often jokes with people about what happened to him.”
His favorite joke?
“I like to tell people that a shark bit off my legs,” Conner says, laughing. “Their reactions are so funny.”
Strength in a moment of vulnerability—that’s Conner.
The word “hero” is defined as a person who is idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. To see more examples of heroism, and compelling evidence that this sport suffers no shortage of such individuals, click here.