Collegiate wheelchair tennis has grown markedly in recent years. Since 2019, the number of participating schools and athletes at the annual Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis National Championships has more than doubled despite the hardships imposed by the pandemic.
However, no program has yet come close to challenging the sport’s long-time heavyweights — the University of Arizona, San Diego State University, and the six-time champions University of Alabama.
That is, until this year.
Michigan was an enigma coming into this year’s Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Nationals. People knew that the Wolverines were building something — word travels fast in the tight-knit adaptive sports community. But beyond graduate student and wheelchair tennis star Chris Kelley, the caliber of Michigan’s athletes was, for the most part, anyone’s guess.
Shocking everyone, the Wolverines’ inexperience didn’t prove to be a barrier. Michigan traveled home with a fistful of finalist medals, even managing to give Alabama a run for its money in the team final.
Undoubtedly, the Wolverines’ performance on the court in its first ever competitive appearance was remarkable. More remarkable still, however, was Michigan’s performance off the court.
Compared to the other participating schools, Michigan’s traveling entourage was enormous: the most athletes, two coaches, a physical therapist, and a host of supporting students. All were clad in a coordinated display of Wolverine pride, donning shirts, shorts, shoes embroidered with “Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness.” Even the spokes on the tires of the athletes’ wheelchairs were painted an eye-catching maize.
While this level of support and coordination at a major collegiate competition may strike the seasoned college athletics fan as standard or unexceptional, this is by no means the case for the majority of adaptive sports programs across the nation. Minimal funding and feeble institutional recognition is pervasive, stunting their growth. Only a few collegiate programs have thus far been successful in generating the support necessary to begin to resemble the average collegiate varsity sports team, and it’s taken them a long time.
But this year, Michigan shattered that model. In the span of only two years, a combination of support from key institutional players and generous financial backing from the Adam Miller Memorial Fund, among others, has enabled the Wolverines to become a dominant force in the collegiate adaptive sports space in next to no time.
“The support we’ve had — that’s why we had matching apparel and chairs,” Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, Director of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness Program, said. “These might seem like superficial items, but they made every other program look and see that we’re a well-oiled machine with organized ideas — they brought an energy that made people know that Michigan was there.”
Throughout the tournament, that energy was an attractive force. A significant number of passerby and Michigan alumni stopped by the Michigan contingent to inquire about the program and wheelchair tennis. A conversation between Okanlami and a hitting partner of former Michigan Men’s Varsity Tennis player and Wimbledon Finalist Mal Washington even led to a video of support from Washington himself.
“People that were not initially part of this entourage became part of this entourage,” Okanlami said. “We had parents of athletes from other institutions come and sit with us because they were there by themselves — they gravitated to the Michigan contingent. I think that energy really attracted people and benefitted the competition.”
Instead of perceiving Michigan’s sudden emergence on the collegiate adaptive sports scene as a new competitive threat, the response from the other universities was overwhelmingly positive.
“There was palpable support from the other schools for Michigan because it was somewhat of a Cinderella story. They enjoyed seeing a newcomer come and add to the body of work that’s being done in adaptive sports,” Okanlami said. “They’ll be able to show this as an example to their own institutions of what’s possible with support — if Michigan can do this after two years in existence, they should be able to get that same level of support from their own institutions.”
Word of what Michigan was accomplishing spread far beyond the tournament’s participants, too. The team was inundated with messages of support from both people inside and outside of Michigan.
“It’s incredible that Michigan has been able to build something of this size so quickly,” Jason Harnett, Head Coach of USA wheelchair tennis, said. “For their first time at Nationals, to make the team final and have the level of funding and support that they have is just fantastic. It shows that the future is incredibly bright for the Wolverines — they’re going to be a contender for many years to come.”
If Michigan entered the tournament as an unknown, it left Orlando having sent a clear message of what’s possible for a program with adequate support to accomplish.
“I would hope that our presence said more about the potential of wheelchair tennis nationally and internationally than it said about our intentions as a team,” Okanlami said. “While I love this team, our goal is to create equitable opportunities for adaptive sport and fitness for all. So hopefully this showed everyone that wheelchair tennis is something that should be supported.”
“This tournament showcased what a difference good leadership and resources put into the right areas can make,” graduate student Matt Fritzie said. “It highlighted Michigan as a leader and as a program that’s not going to be complacent, it’s one that’s going to strive for excellence.”
Next year, the Wolverines will look to build on the momentum they’ve established.
“My goal is excellence, because perfection is impossible,” Okanlami said. “But I absolutely feel that it’s well within the realm of possibility that we’ll return with a national championship next year.”