Wheelchair tennis team serves up new era of adaptive athletics
One of the only adaptive athletics teams at Virginia Tech, the wheelchair tennis team is just beginning what hopefully will be a lasting impact on the university.
In 2020, Virginia Tech Recreational Sports partnered with the Virginia Tech varsity men’s tennis team to offer the university’s first ever wheelchair clinic. Since then, the men’s team has hosted weekly wheelchair tennis clinics, with the student-athletes volunteering to lead instruction for adaptive athletes.
The effort led to the formation of a club sports team, and the clinics serve as a practice for club team and anyone else who wants to join.
Frank Thompson, a rising senior on the men’s tennis team, started the clinics and has been a part of them ever since.
“The clinics started as my eighth-grade community service project,” Thompson said. “I started working with a child named Parker when he was around 4, and the clinics just slowly grew from there. Every year, we have added one or two more people, and now we are an actual team of seven people.”
Gaila Fosbinder, a rising sophomore majoring in engineering, is one of two students on the wheelchair tennis team. Fosbinder developed a passion for tennis as a young child.
“Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be like my parents,” Fosbinder said. “When I was really young, my mom would make me go to a tennis group she would go to on the weekends. You would go to this local park and play with whoever was there, so I sat around for many hours watching and seeing how much fun everyone was having. That exposure is what made me want to be a part of the sport.”
When Fosbinder began playing tennis at the age of 8, she played standing. But arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, a condition that affects the joints, transitioned Fosbinder into playing wheelchair tennis three years ago.
Jason Harnett, the United States Tennis Association wheelchair tennis head coach, later recruited Fosbinder to come to Virginia Tech after the university received a grant from the association to grow the program.
“This opportunity we've been given isn’t one that has existed for many athletes in the past,” Thompson said. “I have a huge appreciation for the sport I play and the fact that it can be played in a wheelchair as well.”
Thompson said the team values representation for disabled athletes. Physical disabilities do not deter from the ability to play a sport, he said, and the wheelchair clinics gradually are proving that.
“Even though it looks different, all the rules are the same except that we get double bounce,” meaning the ball can hit the ground twice during play, Fosbinder said. “Able-bodied people can easily play with people in chairs, so it’s a great sport to integrate both types of people, and I don’t think it is thought of in that way.”
What does the future look like for the clinics?
“The biggest thing is seeing more clinics more frequently,” Fosbinder said. “The Alabama team is one of the biggest teams in the United States, and they have won the championship for six years in a row. I am looking toward a future where we could get to that point.”
The Virginia Tech team attended the Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Championships — its first national championship — held April in Orlando, Florida.
The clinics have led to an Adaptive Recreation course at Virginia Tech, an introductory class designed to raise awareness and recognition regarding opportunities for people with and without disabilities to play and compete.
Fosbinder said her goal during her next three years at Virginia Tech is to expand adaptive athletics beyond tennis.
“I hope we can expand to wheelchair basketball or wheelchair track and field because it will draw more diversity into the university,” she said. “Right now, there aren’t many disabled people on campus, and with Virginia Tech’s motto being Ut Prosim [That I May Serve], it would blend really well into having adaptive athletics.”
Virginia Tech Tennis hosts the weekly clinic at the Burrows-Burleson Tennis Center. Visit the group's Facebook page to learn more.
Written by Cyna Mirzai, a 2023 graduate with a degree in multimedia journalism and an intern for Virginia Tech Communications and Marketing