Expectedly, the sentence “I’ve broken my legs around 16 times” often takes people by surprise.
For many who share the unfortunate commonality of having suffered a leg fracture, the experience is regarded as one of their most traumatic. The logical, justified follow-up to such an incredible statement would be to explain the ways in which these fractures negatively impacted their own life — the frustrations, the limited mobility, the pain.
For Michigan Adaptive Sports and Fitness athlete and decorated grad-student and wheelchair tennis player Chris Kelley — who has, in fact, broken his legs 16 times — this isn’t the case. Instead, Kelley quickly follows up with a qualification designed to illustrate that he’s come away from these experiences not with a desire for sympathy, but a sense of gratitude that things aren’t worse than they are.
“I have a pretty mild form of a pretty severe case,” Kelley said. “It could be significantly worse than what it is.”
Kelley was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a very rare genetic disease. Also known as ‘brittle bone’ disease, the genetic abnormality means that the production of the structurally important protein known as collagen is abnormally produced in the body. As a result, parts of the body that depend on collagen to function properly are negatively affected, with bones being the primary example. Those with osteogenesis imperfecta experience bone fractures at very high frequencies, limiting their ability to participate in most contact activities.
“Thankfully, I’ve only really had it impact my legs. I’ve never broken my arms and I’ve never broken a rib, so I’m pretty lucky,” Kelley continued.
Some of those who have suffered more severe leg fractures require what’s called a “rodding” surgery, wherein a metal rod is inserted into the leg to stabilize the bone and reduce the likelihood of future fractures. The vast majority of those who undergo a rodding surgery only ever need one. Kelley has had four — both of Kelley’s femurs and tibias are supported by large metal rods.
Through a combination of innate talent and sheer determination, however, Kelley has rendered these tribulations largely obsolete. Despite getting a relatively late start to wheelchair tennis — he only began to play organized tennis during his freshman year of high school — Kelley has forged an extremely successful career for himself.
By his junior year of high school, Kelley was selected to represent the U.S. Junior team at the World Team Cup, one of wheelchair tennis’s biggest international showcases. He performed well and was subsequently asked to be part of the United States Developmental team, putting Kelley in a prime position to eventually be promoted to the men’s national team, the pinnacle of wheelchair tennis in the U.S.
“He can definitely be a part of our team USA that goes and represents us as part of the World Team Cup for the men’s team,” one of Kelley’s national team coaches, John Devorss, said. “He’s dedicated, he’s a great competitor and he works hard, so time will tell.”
Upon obtaining his bachelor’s degree in social work from Grand Valley State University, Kelley decided to take some time before returning to school for his master’s degree to fully immerse himself in the world of wheelchair tennis.
“It was definitely one of the most fun gap years that I think anybody could have,” Kelley said with a grin.
During that time off, Kelley crisscrossed the U.S., competing in tournaments in places like Oregon, California and Florida. With each match, his reputation as a formidable competitor grew.
“He had an absolutely fabulous year,” Craig Kelley, Chris’s father, said. “Less than six losses the entire season. It was tremendous.
By the end of 2019, Kelley ranked second in the United States Tennis Association’s Men’s A division for wheelchair tennis. Soon, he planned to move into the Men’s Open division, the most prestigious international division in the sport. As a part of the Open division, Kelley would be competing alongside athletes like Shingo Kunieda and Gustavo Fernandez, the world’s very best wheelchair tennis players.
However, as the year 2020 rolled around, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly dashed Kelley’s hopes of moving into the Open division. His ascendancy would have to be put on hold — for now.
With a break in the action, Kelley decided that it was time to return to school to obtain his master’s degree and become part of a collegiate wheelchair tennis program. Given his meteoric rise in 2019, he was hotly recruited by a number of renowned programs. Among them was the University of Alabama, a powerhouse in the collegiate adaptive sports world and winner of five of the last seven wheelchair tennis national championships. Also among them, however, was Michigan — a program in its infancy looking to gather enough athletes to even begin competing at the national level.
For the extraordinary amount of work required to overcome the hardships he’d faced up to that point, Kelley certainly would have been forgiven for opting for the easier route and joining the established Alabama program. After all, their recent record imparts little doubt that they’ll be among the favorites to win the wheelchair tennis title for years to come.
Instead, he chose Michigan. Kelley chose the project.
“I saw the University of Michigan not only as a way to be an adaptive athlete, but also as a way to help grow the program into being one of the best in the nation,” Kelley said.
And maybe fate played a bit of a role. Shortly after his first e-mail correspondence with Dr. Feranmi Okanlami, the Director of Michigan’s Adaptive Sports and Fitness program, Kelley was flying home from a tournament in New York. After passing through security, a voice from behind asked, “Hey, are you Chris Kelley?”
Startled and slightly unnerved at being referred to by name immediately after a typically uneasy TSA encounter, Kelley turned to find none other than Okanlami.
“After that, I thought maybe Michigan is the place where I’m supposed to be,” Kelley said.
Although the lack of competitive opportunities in 2020 was a disappointment, it wasn’t the end of the world for Kelley. With his now-slender schedule, Kelley set his sights on a different pursuit: finding ways to help expand access to sports for individuals with disabilities.
When one hears of a story like Kelley’s — a highly talented athlete arriving late on the scene yet still managing to rapidly ascend the ranks of their sport — one question begs to be answered. Why didn’t they start sooner?
In Kelley’s case, and in the case of so many other athletes with disabilities, the answer seems to be that they simply didn’t know that opportunities for them to participate in sports existed. Despite their good intentions, Kelley’s elementary and middle school physical education teachers often simply didn’t know how to get him involved safely.
“Giving P.E. teachers and educators the tools to introduce adaptive sports to students with disabilities is a huge part of it,” Kelley said.
“The other main one is physicians,” Kelley added. “I was diagnosed at the age of two. I had doctor’s appointments constantly, and I don’t remember a physician ever mentioning that adaptive sports were a possibility.”
Kelley is convinced that this can be remedied. Over the summer, Kelley worked closely with Adaptive Sports and Fitness staff members to develop the ASIRI project, a collaboration with Project Healthy Schools to develop a more inclusive physical education curriculum. The curriculum aims to embed adaptive sports and inclusive recreation programming into the physical education experience of young students with and without physical disabilities across the state of Michigan.
After he completes his master’s in sports management, Kelley hopes to continue working with the Adaptive Sports and Fitness program full-time.
“One of my main goals is to grow adaptive sports at the university level, so I want to find ways to get involved and stay involved as much as I can,” Kelley said.
While Kelley aims to continue to expand access to sports for individuals with disabilities by developing more projects like the ASIRI project in the future, his true passion lies elsewhere — coaching.
“I’ll look for adaptive sports jobs first with the hopes of finding something where I can either develop a program or do some diversity, equity and inclusion work,” Kelley said. “But if I can coach out on the court for even one day a week, that fills my bucket. It’s my dream job.”
Kelley has been coaching tennis for nearly as long as he’s been playing. In high school, Kelley got his first taste of coaching while helping out with local children’s programs. Throughout his time at Grand Valley, Kelley subsequently expanded his coaching to include adult classes at a nearby tennis club.
Since then, Kelley hasn’t been able to get enough of it — he’s traveled across the Midwest with the United States Tennis Association to lead wheelchair tennis clinics, taken on the role of coach for Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital’s youth wheelchair tennis team and has spent a year as the assistant coach of a high school varsity tennis team.
“I love that he’s somebody who’s teaching both kids and adults, both able-bodied and in wheelchairs,” Devorss said. “Truly, that’s an amazing thing. It’s rare.”
Kelley’s coaching acumen is bolstered by support from his father, Craig, an experienced tennis coach with a degree from Ferris State University in Professional Tennis Management. The two have coached alongside each other at a number of camps, allowing Kelley to draw directly from the wisdom of his father.
“He’ll even help me too, at times,” Craig Kelley said. “He’ll say ‘Hey, I think you might be being a little too firm with the kids.’ It goes both ways.”
From his many years of coaching, Craig Kelley has come to realize the most important concept to instill in the minds of young players, a concept Chris has already taken to heart in his own coaching.
“Above anything, it’s the love of the game,” he said. “You want to make sure that you keep the spirit within them, making sure that they want to come back and play day after day.”
Added Chris: “It’s important to realize that sport is supposed to be a good opportunity to grow a community and to get physical activity. It’s not life or death.”
One day, Chris Kelley admits, there’ll come a point in time when continuing to compete will no longer be an option. Years of swinging a racket with extreme force will mean Kelley’s shoulder cuffs and wrists will deteriorate. Eventually, his body simply won’t be able to sustain the wear and tear any longer.
Before fully setting his sights on coaching, however, there’s one thing Kelley is adamant about accomplishing.
“I want that national championship ring,” Kelley said.