Wheelchair Tennis Journey Leads to Rio Paralympic Games

While the 2016 Olympic Summer Games is over, hundreds of other athletes are preparing for the upcoming Paralympic Games, also in Rio.  They will use the same venues, Olympic Village, ceremonies, medals and incredible competition.  Paralympic athletes from around the world will soon arrive in Rio – athletes who have worked hard, trained hard and fought hard to earn the right to compete for their countries in their sports.  

I will be there as well, representing the United States on the Jury of Appeal for the sport of wheelchair tennis. I couldn’t be more honored, and it seems a fitting culmination of my 20 years as a wheelchair sports athlete. I have competed across the country playing tennis and, most recently, wheelchair softball. I enjoy earning national and international rankings and the thrill of competition. 

Over the years, I have enjoyed watching wheelchair tennis grow. With my experiences, I see everyone as a person first – an individual who happens to use a wheelchair; an athlete first and their disability second.  At times, a disabled athlete is referred to as a “wheelchair-bound athlete” (yet we are not bound to our chairs), the “inspiring athlete” or the “feel good” story.  There is, however, a story behind every person – disabled or not. Most athletes with disabilities who come to the Paralympics want to be seen as athletes for their hard work and determination just like anyone else. If you spend some time with a serious Paralympian, you will quickly lose the view of a disabled person and see a true athlete.

As my high performance days are behind me, I love taking on new challenges to continue to grow and educate others about wheelchair sports. From my years working with the Grand Rapids Wheelchair Sports Association as a board member and now the Mary Free Bed Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports program, many athletes get their first try with our local organizations. They are given an opportunity to see a whole new world of opportunity that was behind closed doors. Whether they are fresh out of rehab or experienced an injury a few years ago, there is a whole community of athletes and opportunities for anyone with a disability.  The West Michigan Sports Commission also is a key local player in this effort, bringing a variety of sport competition that includes adaptive sports to our region and the physical and economic impact that these events generate.  

I now spend my time mentoring younger athletes, being a role model, and volunteering with the USTA (United States Tennis Association) Midwest section and USTA Wheelchair National Committee as chairman, as well as serving on the ITF (International Tennis Federation) Wheelchair Committee.

This year, I have the privilege of being selected to represent the United States at the Paralympic Games in Rio on the Jury of Appeal for the sport of wheelchair tennis.  I will attend the duration of the wheelchair tennis event with five other individuals from various countries, and together we will handle any rule-related situation arising at the event. We are considered the most knowledgeable experts from our Paralympic sport.  Every Paralympic sport has a Jury of Appeal, and it is truly an honor to serve in this role and represent my country.  

Twenty-five years ago, I would have never dreamed that I would have some of the experiences I had because of wheelchair sports. The opportunities that sports have opened, the people I’ve met from across the globe and have developed relationships with (many of whom I consider close friends) are all because of my involvement in wheelchair sports.  

Being at Rio on the Jury of Appeal is truly an honorable position, and I’m proud to support wheelchair tennis. I hope others are encouraged by my actions and that I can inspire others who are disabled to experience some of the immense opportunities that I have been given through participation in wheelchair sports. And I look forward to lending my experience and knowledge to assist in bringing more adaptive sports opportunities to the Grand Rapids area for the benefit of all.

NOTE: The Paralympic Games take place Sept. 7-18 in Rio de Janeiro.


Curt Bender
Guest Blogger
Curt is a competitive wheelchair tennis player from Holland who will serve on the Jury of Appeal for the wheelchair tennis event at the 2016 Paralympic Games. He is chairman of the USTA Wheelchair Committee and a member of the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Committee.

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