With efforts to grow wheelchair tennis, Hokies hope to fill void of adaptive sports in the area

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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — Normally at this time of the year, the second week of Wimbledon would have its place in the sports pages and sports segments across the globe.

But that event, like many others, has been scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the lawns at the All-England Club empty.

And in the realm of para sports, the grand slams have always been an opportunity for wheelchair tennis to get some time in the spotlight. But not this summer. And with the Tokyo Paralympics postponed until 2021, the sport isn’t getting the boost of exposure that it expected.

However, in Southwest Virginia, there’s a push to grow the game of wheelchair tennis and expand the reach of adaptive sports.

“It’s fun, it’s like any other sport. You pick it up. You try it out,” Jacob Tyree said.

The tennis court isn’t normally where you’d find Tyree. Usually, the Roanoke native is on the basketball court.

“Wheelchair basketball you’re going to the ball, where as (in tennis) you need to position your chair not necessarily at the ball,” Tyree said. “But you wanna be at arm’s length with the racket away from it.”

A wheelchair has been part of Tyree’s life since he was ten years old.

“I had cancer, growing up. We found a five inch tumor in my spinal cord and ended up doing a couple surgeries to remove it did six weeks radiation was ultimately given six to nine months to live,” Tyree said. “I am one of two now living cordectomy patients in a medical record history…I’m basically a living guinea pig for the medical industry.”

With optimism and focus on what he’s able to do, Tyree turned to sports. But as it turned out, there weren’t many opportunities for disabled athletes in the area.

“The closest wheelchair basketball program was Charlotte, North Carolina,” Tyree said. “So we drove three hours down on Mondays. Left school at noon. Drove down, practice for two hours, went off to eat with the team, three hours back. Did homework either in the car or when we got home.”

His talent earned the Glenvar product a full ride at the University of Illinois and a spot on the United States under-23 wheelchair basketball team.

Three years ago, Tyree founded the Roanoke Stars, hosting clinics annually in hopes to expand adaptive sports in the area.

“In Southwestern Virginia, we’re looking to get exposure to any adaptive sport,” Tyree said. “We’re still so far behind.”

This year, Virginia Tech hosted a wheelchair tennis clinic, the first of its kind to take place on campus. Led by U.S. Paralympic coach Jason Harnett, the event opened doors for athletes like Tyree.

“A place like Virginia Tech has such a strong tennis history and tennis community,” Harnett said. “If I was able to come in here like I did today and just have an educational couple of hours, get people trying the chairs out, what happens is you get buy in and plus the word gets out that you’re starting a program.”

The goal is for adaptive sports to have a bigger footprint in the Virginia Tech community and beyond.

“We’re hoping that by getting both the men’s and women’s tennis teams engaged at the beginning stages, even they as young people will take ownership of this program and include it as part of their family,” Harnett said. “Part of the VT tennis team is our wheelchair tennis team and we’re hoping that’s how they see it.”

The clinic was hailed as a success and serves as the building block to create a permanent program in the future. Similar teams have already been created at schools such as Clemson, Alabama and Michigan State.

“It would be awesome to have Virginia Tech start an adaptive tennis program,” Tyree said. “Not just for the sake of tennis but for adaptive sports as a whole. These kids are growing up with an exposure of adaptive sports. This is normal to them and adaptive sports should be normal to everybody.”

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