David Wagner finishes 2013 at the top of his game

By Alex Sopko | Jan. 08, 2014, 12 p.m. (ET)
David Wagner
Three-time U.S. Paralympian David Wagner won his third round match against Andrew Lapthorne of Great Britain during the 2013 Australian Open Wheelchair Championships at Melbourne Park on Jan. 24 in Melbourne, Australia, en route to the title.

David Wager
David Wagner won an individual silver medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games following a doubles gold medal with Nick Taylor.

Only hours after winning his third consecutive Paralympic gold medal and his second medal of the 2012 London Paralympic Games, David Wagner met up with a handful of his closest friends and family to celebrate.

A three-time wheelchair tennis Paralympian, Wagner, 39, walked out of Eton Manor in London with a silver medal in the men’s quad singles and a gold medal in the men’s quad doubles. As fate would have it, Wagner and his friends walked right into a Brazilian restaurant.

“We were like, well let’s eat here and prepare for the next four-year experience,” he said.

With the London Games finished and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games two years away, it’s easy to imagine Wagner enjoying a well-deserved break.

But for the current world No. 1 quad singles and doubles wheelchair tennis player, there are no breaks.

With victories at the US Open in September, the NEC Wheelchair Tennis Masters in November and the ITF Wheelchair Doubles Masters later in November, Wagner enters the new year focused on a new round of championships.

“This year is a good year to get as many points as you can for the following year, because in 2015 that’s when our qualification year will start for [the Rio Games],” he said in a recent interview. “The better you can do at any event, the higher you can remain seeded going into that qualification year.”

While the 2016 Paralympic Games are a ways off, Wagner’s recent gold and silver medals from the London Games are just one form of motivation to stay in top form. So too is his desire to remain the world’s best.

“It’s there, of course,” he said. “Rio is coming up and as we get closer it will become more in the front of my mind for sure, but it’s definitely in the back of my mind now. Right now I’m leaning towards just being the best tennis player that I can be here and now.”

Preparing for potentially his fourth Paralympic Games is not something Wagner ever imagined for himself growing up in California. Especially not after breaking his neck in the Pacific Ocean when he was 21 years old.  

“I was chasing a Frisbee down, and when I jumped over the wave to go get the Frisbee, the wave broke and it hit my leg and it just jack-knifed my body and sent my head into the ocean floor,” he said. “And it just instantly paralyzed me.”

During rehabilitation for his injuries, Wagner started playing table tennis. Soon, he was a three-time national champion winning his share of international competitions as well. Even then the possibility of representing the United States in the Paralympic Games never entered his mind.

“No not at all,” Wagner said. “To be honest with you I didn’t even know that that was an option for me. I knew of the Paralympics through rehab but I didn’t think that was something in my foreseeable future, especially early on with the onset of my disability.”

Four years after his injury, Wagner began playing wheelchair tennis. Now, Wagner is at the top of not just his game, but the world rankings as well. He finished the season with win-loss record of 49-4 in the quad singles and a 34-1 quad doubles record. All four of his singles losses came at the hands of No. 2 Lucas Sithole of South Africa.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “When you think about it, there’s only one No. 1, right, so everybody wants to take that title. Nobody’s out there striving to be No. 2 or No. 3. Everyone’s trying to be the best they can be and everyone wants to be at that pinnacle of No. 1.”

Wagner knows the feeling of being in all three positions. Since 2002 he has been ranked in the top-3 in both quad singles and doubles, playing primarily with Nick Taylor. Having reached the No. 1 position, Wagner refuses to give it up.

The quest to maintain his top position and perhaps win another Paralympic medal takes Wagner to the Australian Open Wheelchair Championships on Jan. 22.

“I’ve got the Australian Open, the grand slam, coming up first in January in Australia so that’s goal No. 1… Maintain No. 1 throughout the year is the long-term goal, and then consistently get better and improve my overall fitness, my strength and tennis ability.”

One other goal on Wagner’s list is to cheer on his contemporaries at the Sochi Olympic and Paralympic Games beginning Feb. 6 and March 7.

“The disadvantage for us with tennis is that the Australian Open is in January, so while we have Christmas and New Years, it’s not like we’re out celebrating or partying because we’re truly in full time training mode,” he explained.

“But when the Paralympics go in March, I’ll be really excited because the whole month I’ll be home training, so I’ll hopefully be able to catch the winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

NBC and NBCSN will combine to air 50 hours of television coverage for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, starting on March 7 with the Opening Ceremony. It will be followed by daily coverage of all five Paralympic sports in the Sochi program, before the Games’ Closing Ceremony is broadcast on March 16.

In addition to the unprecedented U.S. television coverage, the USOC will provide live online coverage of both the Sochi and Rio Paralympic Games at TeamUSA.org.