By Doug Williams | July 27, 2018, 12:54 p.m. (ET)

Nick Taylor competing (L) in wheelchair tennis at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and competing in boccia at the 2018 national championships.

 

It’s about a two-hour drive from Nick Taylor’s home in Wichita, Kansas, to Topeka. So when he made that drive in January, he had time to think and call a few friends. His mind was made up about something, but he wanted some feedback.

Taylor, 38, is an elite wheelchair tennis player who’s been to four Paralympic Games and won five medals, including three golds, in quad doubles. But after being introduced to the sport of boccia in September, he was smitten and had been invited to Topeka to participate in a club practice.

“I said, ‘I’m at the point of no return,’” he said. “That was my line. They said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘I know myself well enough. If I roll in and go to this practice, I’m going to like it and I’m going to go nuts with this. I know myself well enough.’ To each one of them I said, ‘Do I do it?’ And every one of them said, ‘Hell, yeah, you’ve got to go for it.’”

Taylor was right. He loved it and has gone nuts for the sport, the Paralympic version of the longtime European game known as bocce that is designed for wheelchair athletes. Athletes roll balls as close as possible to a small target ball to collect points, while also strategically knocking opponents’ balls out of scoring position or blocking scoring lanes.

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Taylor left Topeka with some loaned equipment from Cathy Drobny, the coach and organizer of the Green Machine boccia club, which allowed him to practice at home. From there, Taylor entered a tournament in Kansas City, where he finished third in the open class, a higher classification than the BC4 he will compete in.

From there, Taylor went to the USA Boccia Nationals in Naperville, Illinois, in late June, and fared well. He won his pool over the first two days to qualify for the semifinals (the top two from each pool advanced). Unfortunately, he was unable to participate further in large part because the tournament schedule conflicted with a professional wheelchair tennis tournament he had organized in Wichita at the same time.

Regardless, he’s already hooked on boccia. There’s no turning back. He loves the strategy of the game and the precision needed to play it. He wants to pursue a spot with a national team. Though he’s a novice, he’s one with a track record of success in tennis.

“I was impressed with him in our practice sessions and in the warm-up sessions I saw at nationals,” said Drobny, who is also the competition committee chair for USA Boccia. “His shot selection and even his variety of shots was very good. There wasn’t any doubt he was putting in a lot of practice time.”

Drobny’s assertion was correct. Before nationals, Taylor took all his boccia equipment with him on a five-week trip to Europe where he played in several tennis tournaments. By the end of the trip he’d enlisted other wheelchair athletes into impromptu daily boccia games between tennis matches.

Precision And Accuracy
The first step on Taylor’s path to boccia came this past September, when he was involved in organizing a youth clinic for Paralympic sports in Wichita. He wanted to make sure to include boccia for young athletes with severe disabilities who may not be able to take part in other sports such as track and field, tennis and basketball. During the boccia portion of the clinic, he was encouraged to try throwing a few balls.

“My whole athletic strength has been about precision and accuracy,” said Taylor, who uses a wheelchair and has limited range of motion — and little upper-body strength — because of a congenital disease. After throwing some balls that day, he said he realized boccia “was very much about control and precision and strategy.”

That little taste was enough to leave Taylor wanting more. Drobny invited him to Topeka, and he went — knowing full well that he was going to go all in on the new sport.

Right now, Taylor has no intention of giving up tennis. He’s just adding boccia.

“For the moment I’m going to keep going with both, and if I ever get forced to where I have to make a decision for some events … then I would make a decision when I had to,” he said.

In an ideal world, he’d love to get the chance to compete in tennis and boccia at the next Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020. For now, though, he knows he’s not ready. He’s working on his own game, picking the brains of veteran boccia players and reading everything he can about his newfound love.

“I love learning new things, and I have so much fun doing it,” he said. “Mastering one thing and moving on to the next. With tennis I’ve been doing it for 25 years. There’s more to learn but the learning curve is very slight at this point, whereas in boccia it’s so new the learning curve (is steep). Every week I play I keep getting better and learning new things, new tricks, new shots and trying out new equipment.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.