“High school is a pretty hard setting to go through when you’re different than most of the people you go with. I mean it’s a rough place in general.” Casey Ratzlaff’s outlet? Wheelchair tennis. “Sports changed my personality a bit, because I have something that I’m competitive about, and I have this drive in me to be great at something,” Casey said. “Its helped me grow as a person, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.”
The recent high school graduate who is attending Wichita State University tried a number of sports before he settled on tennis. Wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, and floor hockey were some sports he attempted without serious commitment.
“I never took them very seriously,” he said.
But from the moment Casey sat in a chair and played tennis, he knew he’d found his calling.
“I wasn’t very good. I could barely hit the ball with a racket,”
Casey said. “But once I hit the ball over, it started something for me. I wanted more.”
Casey, who was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects his lower limbs, had never been in a wheelchair prior to attending the clinic where he first tried wheelchair tennis. At the time, he was using crutches to assist his walking.
Luckily, Nick Taylor, the pro running the clinic and also a Wichita native, can spot raw talent when he sees it. When a guy who has won more than 300 matches in his career, including nine grand slam quad doubles victories and three Paralympic gold medals, says you have a knack for the sport of wheelchair tennis, you pay attention.
“He saw me at a young age; I think he saw potential in me,”
Casey said. “That helped me, because he wanted to push me to play as much as I wanted to play. That really worked with my drive.”
A little more than a year later Casey was named to the U.S.
World Cup Team. There he got to meet and compete against some of the best in the world.
“These past couple of years, I’ve gotten multiple chances to play with some of the best,” said Casey. “I think I’m lucky if I pull a number six in the world. I’ll get killed, but it’s a great learning experience.”
Playing that elite competition helped Casey improve his own game. Two summers ago, he traveled to the Netherlands with the U.S. junior team to compete in the World Cup and helped his team bring home the gold medal. Last summer, the boys’ junior team defended their title in Tokyo after defeating Chile 2-1 in the finals. He was also part of the men’s team that brought home fifth place in Tokyo.
“It was a dream come true,” said Casey. “I never thought going in that we were going to get that far and win it.”
But that success didn’t come without hard work. Casey spends nearly every day out on the court, hitting for a minimum of an hour, whether it’s playing against local club teams, his fellow high school tennis players, or working with his coach Jeff Clark, who also trained Nick Taylor.
“It’s good for me, because you get the chance to play with so many people who hit the ball differently,” he said.
While Casey said the World Cup win is the highlight of his young career so far, he also sees the team’s success as a great step in the right direction for his legacy in the sport. He believes that there is an unlimited ceiling for growth in the U.S. wheelchair tennis scene and is always looking for new talent, much like Nick was on the lookout when he found Casey.
“The ultimate goal for me is to make an impact in this country and really start something,” said Casey. “I just want to inspire people to play.”
As part of his goal to build a legacy, Casey applied for, and was accepted for the Disabled Sports USA E-Team, a program dedicated to empowering the next generation of Paralympic athletes, to help him share his story and network with more young adaptive athletes.
This spring, Casey will leave the halls of his high school behind for college. He’ll continue to play tennis and keep his sights set on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, but for that incoming freshman who might need an outlet, Casey recommends trying out a new sport.
“Don’t make your disability an excuse to not go out and try things. If you want to explore, go explore,” Casey said. “I did it, and I think it’s worked out for me so far. Just be yourself and work hard at the things you love and you’ll go places in life.”