HANDI-CAPABLE: Navy vet rebounds from debilitating injury with tennis

- Sports can make a huge difference in a person's life, especially if someone thinks they'll never be able to compete again. That difference can be seen in a disabled navy veteran who has worked his way into competing in the US Open for Wheelchair Tennis.

"I try anything," said Michael Smith. "I don't believe in having limitations."

Every week at Roadrunner Park, people can find Smith working on his tennis game. The 56-year-old has been playing sports since he was six.

Things, however, changed in 1981.

"I was in the Navy, joined in 1979," said Smith. "I was on the USS Bellwood, and we were doing flight ops in Japan."

At the age of 20, Smith lost his leg.

 "A helicopter on deck blew up, I was right next to it and my leg got torn off," recounted Smith. "It was hard. It was hard, and the biggest thing that kept coming at me was 'why'?"

It didn't take long, however, for Smith to rebound, thanks to sports.

"Even when I lost my leg, one of the first things that somebody told me is that I wouldn't be able to do things," said Smith. "I would limp, wouldn't run, but I won my first slam dunk contest five months later."

For more than three decades, Smith has been playing a variety of games, and for the past three years, the focus has been tennis.

Smith took up tennis on a whim, and fell in love with it.

"We have a joke going on now, there are able bodied people who say that we cheat because we get two bounces," said Smith. "We can't move sideways, so we have to have two bounces, and that's the only difference we get."

Smith has been training for the US Open for Wheelchair Tennis with Coach Kurt Bishop. It's Bishop's first time coaching someone with a disability, but the game doesn't change.

"In much the same way, the starting point is different," said Bishop. "The mechanics are largely the same. You've got to racquet back, shoulder turn, watch the ball."

With Smith, one shouldn't be surprised when he decides to play, standing up, using his prosthetic leg.

"The gentleman he plays doubles with a couple times a week, they see it. and they don't take it easy on him," said Bishop.

When he's not firing off 100+ mile per hour serves, Smith is also dedicating his time to coaching, trying to grow the game for the wheelchair community. Athlete Justin Walker is learning the game from Smith.

Walker had played baseball his whole life, until a freak accident in college.

"Play at the plate, kinda slid, catcher jumped to caught it and he came down landed on my neck and broke my neck," said Walker.

Walker feared life as an athlete was over, until wheelchair tennis opened a door for him.

"I got the competitive itch back," said Walker. "Once you're an athlete, you're always an athlete."

"I've seen guys that have been in wheelchairs, when they see that they can do stuff, they're not just bound to the chair," said Smith. "They found out they can do more than roll down the street or roll to the bathroom."

Now the focus is accessibility.

Smith is starting a wheelchair tennis for veterans program this fall, and is trying to link up with the City of Phoenix to talk about more wheelchair-friendly courts, and ideally an indoor one/

"We have what, three million people in Phoenix, minimum 100,000 in wheelchairs," said Smith. "I know I'm asking for a lot, but it's because I believe, Phoenix as big as it is, can do it."

Smith is in St. Louis, where the US Open for Wheelchair Tennis is being held. Smith is competing in both singles and doubles tournaments, and said he has won his first match.

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