The growth of wheelchair tennis means everything to Dan James

It’s been more than 35 years since Ronald Reagan stated, during his first inaugural address, “Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.” We discovered heroes in every state, starting with the determined 69-year-old who won a match at an ITF Pro Circuit event earlier this year in the Alabama town of Pelham, and culminating with the coach who has overcome multiple sclerosis to build a winning program at the University of Wyoming. Their compelling stories of courage, perseverance and achievement demonstrate that the message delivered by our 40th President rings as true today as it did then.

The first time Dan James tried to play wheelchair tennis, he fell over—three times. He had just finished teaching his first wheelchair-tennis clinic, and his new students figured that putting their able-bodied coach in a chair might serve as an educational experience.

Little did they know that it would set the 22-year-old on a path to becoming one of the most preeminent wheelchair-tennis coaches in America.

Now 46, James became the USTA’s National Manager of Wheelchair Tennis in 2003 and has coached five U.S. Paralympic teams. Awarded various honors for his players’ success and his grassroots efforts, he’s most concerned with exposing the sport to a wider audience.

James wants the public to know that elite wheelchair players deserve more than a pat on the back.

“The first thing you think of when you hear wheelchair tennis is, ‘Well, that’s good for them for getting out and playing,’” he says. “We need to get past that. As soon as you see them play, you forget the wheelchair. The level of athletic ability required in wheelchair tennis is off the charts.”

Able-bodied players don’t have to think about moving to the ball—their bodies do it naturally. That, James says, is one of the hardest things for new coaches to understand, and it’s why it’s important for every player, disabled or not, to try playing from a chair. Mobility patterns, angles of approach and quick preparation are key, making wheelchair tennis just as technical as it is physical.

While training some of the best players in the game, James has also poured much of his time into grassroots efforts, locally and abroad. He developed a grant program to help defray the cost of court time, coaching and equipment in a sport where a beginner-level chair can cost $1,000.

James wrapped up his tenure with the USTA this fall and will remain based in Seattle, WA. With his newly decreased travel schedule, James looks forward to the time he will spend with the local wheelchair tennis community. As for his former position, he’s confident he’ll be leaving it in good hands.

“It has been my baby for a long time,” says James. “You have to hope the next person that comes in has great ideas and takes it further than I did.”