College wheelchair tennis has grown significantly in recent years. Since 2019, the number of schools and athletes participating in the annual Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis National Championships has more than doubled despite the difficulties caused by the pandemic.
To date, however, no program has challenged the sport’s longtime heavyweights – the University of Arizona, San Diego State University, and the six-time Champions University of Alabama.
That is, until this year.
Michigan was a mystery to this year’s Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Nationals. People knew the Wolverines were building something – word got around quickly in the close-knit adaptive sports community. But apart from graduate student and wheelchair tennis star Chris Kelley, the caliber of Michigan’s athletes was largely everyone’s guess.
The Wolverines’ inexperience, which shocked everyone, did not prove to be an obstacle. Michigan traveled home with a handful of finalist medals and even managed to give Alabama a run for its money in the team finals.
Undoubtedly the performance of the Wolverines on the court in their first competitive appearance was remarkable. Even more notable, however, was Michigan’s performance out of court.
Compared to the other participating schools, Michigan’s entourage was enormous: most athletes, two coaches, a physical therapist, and a multitude of supportive students. All dressed in a coordinated representation of Wolverine pride and dressed in shirts, shorts, and shoes that were embroidered with Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness. Even the spokes on the tires of the athletes’ wheelchairs were painted with an eye-catching corn.
While this level of support and coordination at a major college competition makes the seasoned college athletics fan standard or non-exceptional, it is by no means the case with most adaptive sports programs across the country. Minimal funding and weak institutional recognition are ubiquitous and stunt their growth. So far, only a few college programs have managed to generate the support necessary to resemble the average college-varsity sports team, and it has taken a long time.
But this year Michigan destroyed that model. In just two years, thanks to a combination of support from key institutional players and generous financial support from the Adam Miller Memorial Fund, the Wolverines have rapidly become a dominant force in adaptive college sports.
“The support we had – so we had suitable clothes and chairs,” said Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, director of Michigan’s adaptive exercise and fitness program. “These things may seem superficial, but they made every other program look like we were a well-oiled machine with organized ideas. They brought an energy that let people know Michigan was there.”
That energy was an attraction throughout the tournament. A significant number of Michigan passers-by and alumni visited the Michigan contingent to inquire about the program and wheelchair tennis. A conversation between Okanlami and a successful partner of the former Michigan Men’s Varsity tennis player and Wimbledon finalist Mal Washington even resulted in a video with the support of Washington itself.
“People who were not originally part of this entourage became part of this entourage,” Okanlami said. “We had parents of athletes from other institutions who came to us and sat down because they were there alone – they were interested in the Michigan contingent. I think energy really attracted people and benefited the competition. “
Instead of perceiving Michigan’s sudden appearance on the scene of adaptive university sports as a new competitive threat, the response from the other universities was overwhelmingly positive.
“The other schools supported Michigan noticeably because it was a Cinderella story. They enjoyed seeing a newcomer come and expand the work in adaptive sport, ”said Okanlami. “They can show this to their own institutions as an example of what can be done with support. If Michigan can do this after two years, they should be able to get the same level of support from their own institutions.”
The news of what Michigan has achieved also reached well beyond the tournament participants. The team was inundated with messages of support from people inside and outside Michigan.
“It’s incredible that Michigan could build something this size so quickly,” said Jason Harnett, head coach of US wheelchair tennis. “For a first time at Nationals, it’s just fantastic to be finalizing the team and having the funding and support that they have. It shows that the future is incredibly bright for the Wolverines – they will be a competitor for many years to come. “
If Michigan entered the tournament as a stranger, it would leave Orlando after sending a clear message about what kind of program is possible with adequate support.
“I would hope our presence says more about the potential of wheelchair tennis at home and abroad than our intentions as a team,” said Okanlami. “While I love this team, our goal is to create equitable opportunities for adaptive exercise and fitness for everyone. Hopefully this has shown everyone that wheelchair tennis should be supported. “
“This tournament showed the difference good leadership and resources can make in the right areas,” said graduate student Matt Fritzie. “It singled out Michigan as a leader and as a program that will not be complacent but will seek excellence.”
Next year the Wolverines will try to build on the momentum they have built.
“My goal is excellence because perfection is impossible,” said Okanlami. “But I absolutely believe that it is entirely possible that we will return with a national championship next year.”