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Eight-time Paralympic medalist David Wagner has been in the top three in the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Rankings for 17 consecutive years.
The last time he was not in the top three — in April 2003 — 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” topped the Billboard charts and “Chicago” was fresh off winning the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Now 46, Wagner thought he had faced every challenge in the wheelchair tennis playbook. After suffering a spinal-cord injury in 1995 in a beach accident that left him paralyzed from mid-chest down, Wagner took up wheelchair tennis competitively. He’s since won more than a dozen Grand Slam titles, stood on the Paralympic podium eight times across four different Paralympic Games and overcame a ruptured hernia last season to return to full form by the end of the year.
But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic threw an unforeseen obstacle his way: he had never be-fore taken a break from the sport for longer than two and a half months. Now, he has no other choice, with tennis courts closed at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California, all ITF events suspended until at least July 13 and the Paralympic Games Tokyo postponed until 2021.
He has accepted the circumstances, however, like the seasoned pro he is.
“When I found out the Tokyo Games were being postponed, to be honest I felt like it was coming and prepared myself for that,” Wagner said. “I wasn’t heartbroken. It was an opportunity to train harder and get into even better shape and be even more prepared.”
Luckily for Wagner, at the 155-acre training center in Chula Vista, he has plenty of space to physi-cally distance from his peers. Enough so that he pushes up to 15 miles a day total between his day chair and tennis chair.
The right-handed hitter has not been on a tennis court for over a month, but he has identified some secluded walls to hit balls back-and-forth with in solidarity.
“Walls are good. They never miss,” Wagner joked.
It’s a different style of training without access to hitting partners and coaches, and no Grand Slam coming up with Wimbledon canceled and the French Open, originally scheduled for late May, postponed until late September. Wagner’s navigating through it just like he has all the other hurdles in his career — with the help of his support system.
David Wagner celebrates at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 30, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
“Surrounding myself with the right people who have my best interests in mind and people who are willing to go to bat for me and help me and understand the sacrifices I’ve made — that makes a huge difference,” Wagner said.
The No. 3-ranked quad player in the world pointed in particular to USTA national wheelchair ten-nis coach John Devorss, who has helped him adjust the last few years so he can keep facing the new talent rising in the sport no matter the challenge thrown at him.
“The technology has changed the game in terms of rackets, strings and wheelchair manufacturers. All of that makes a change in the game,” Wagner said. “Then you take into account stronger play-ers, and now you’ve got to be able to battle players who are physically stronger than you, especial-ly as you’re getting older.”
After being sidelined last summer to repair a ruptured hernia, Wagner is now indubitably focused on increasing the longevity of his career. He’s never “been in it for the medals or the titles,” but rather his top wish is simply to grow the game and expand the athlete pool. He vigorously desires to leave the sport in a stronger and more robust state than when he joined it.
In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic break from the court has been Wagner’s “practice run” for day-to-day life post-retirement. With no travel, no training, no tournaments and plenty of time to spend with family, he’s adapting to what life will be like for the first time in nearly two decades once he leaves the ITF Wheelchair Tennis Tour.
Will that tour departure come just after the Tokyo Games?
“I feel healthy, and I feel good,” Wagner said. “I’m competitive. I love the fight. I love the battle. I love the travel. I love the training. I love all aspects of it.
“I don’t know why I’d want to throw in my towel yet.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.