“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 18-year-old high school senior from Wichita, Kansas, 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.”
Melissa Stockwell lost her leg in Iraq. Now she’s part of the first Paralympic triathlon team and training future triathletes through Dare2tri, a Disabled Sports USA chapter she co-founded.
Jack O’Neil lost his leg at the age of nine. In the four years since, he’s participated in 15 triathlons and hopes to become like his mentor Melissa Stockwell.
Jessica Heims didn’t let the fact that she was born with Ambiotic Band Syndrome and lost her leg at 12 months slow her down.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Dan Hernandez picked up his first golf club 20 years ago and has spent the majority of his life attempting to master the sport.
Kyle Malin grew up in Minnesota and never picked up a hockey stick. It wasn’t until he moved to the heat of Texas that he found his comfort zone in an ice rink.
Q&A with Heath Calhoun, Stephanie Victor, and Alana Nichols.
For November, our Athlete of the Month is Insha Afsar; an earthquake survivor, high school athlete and Alpine E-Team member.
For August, our Athlete of the Month is Noah Hotchkiss: an E-Team member, adaptive athlete and ambassador within his Native American community.
For July, our athlete of the month is Amanda Malawski: a track and field athlete, Paralympic hopeful and high school student.
For June, our Athlete of the Month is Landon Ranker: a Sergeant First Class in the Army and an endurance runner.
For May, our athlete of the month is Chris Bowers: a Marine corps veteran, golfer and adaptive instructor.
For April, our Athlete of the Month is Sam Kavanagh: a Paralympic bronze medalist in cycling.
For April, our Athlete of the Month is Aaron Pike: a dual sport Paralympian in track and field and Nordic skiing.
A military member and former high school basketball and track athlete, she knew she wanted to stay active despite her new injuries.
Steve Martin, a Warfighter Sports ambassador, hasn’t stopped moving since he got his first set of prosthetic legs after becoming a bilateral below knee amputee in 2008.
An outdoor enthusiast prior to her accident, Aimee wanted to get back outside so she began kayaking with Team River Runner, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA.
Shawn Cheshire began losing her vision as a result of a head trauma. She’s been competing ever since as a member of the U.S. Cycling National Development Team.
Bradley Johnson lost both of his legs in 1993. Eleven years later, Johnson has participated in three Paralympic Games.
Originally declared killed in action in April 2004, retired Army Major Anthony Smith has lived a revitalized life.
Born with an underdeveloped spinal cord, McFadden had to fight to survive. She’s been breaking barriers since birth.
Amy Purdy contracted bacterial meningitis at the age of 19 and subsequently had both of her legs amputated below the knee.In March 2014, she will compete in the Paralympic games.
Sarah Holm doesn’t instantly bring to mind the mental image of a ski racer. She enjoys the camaraderie of her team more than she thrives on competition.
Greg Shaw was born with a congenital condition that causes spinal deformity. That hasn’t stopped him from competing as part of the US Paralympic Men’s Sled Hockey team.
Lonnie Bedwell, a former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class, was injured in a hunting accident that took his sight instantly. Thirteen years later he got into adaptive sports.
Navy veteran Don Balcom is a member of Team Warfighter Sports, setting his sights on the marathon distance at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Anjali Forber-Pratt, a two time Paralympian in track and field, has been involved with adaptive sports from a young age.
For September, our Athlete of the Month is Stephanie Wheeler: a former collegiate wheelchair basketball player and current Team USA coach.