What am I gonna do now?
How Brad Parks answered that question would
put him in the International Tennis Hall of Fame ...
In 1976, a healthy, sun-tanned, Orange County kid with Olympic-sized aspirations entered a freestyle skiing competition in Park City, Utah. He had just turned 18. The future was bright.
The next day a tragic landing on a signature back flip would change his life instantly. The fall left him paralyzed from the waist down, clearing the slate of his future dreams. Recovery would
be difficult, both the physical challenge of being confined to a wheelchair, and the mental challenge of answering that very question, what am I gonna do now?
It wasn’t an easy path, but even a tragedy of that magnitude couldn’t still his competitive spirit, that unquenchable fire that challenges a man to push himself farther than his peers, to want to be the best.
Before fate would put a tennis racquet in his hand, Parks had already begun testing the boundaries of his newfound confinement, then he started trying to improve them. He was soon racing people around in their wheelchairs. He tried Paralympics track and field. He gave wheelchair basketball a shot. He had even experimented with the sport of tennis with his father once. Then he met Jeff Minnebraker. Jeff had suffered a similar injury in a car accident and had recently designed a lighter chair specifically for sports.
“That chance encounter,” Andrew Friedman wrote for TENNIS.com “was the (wheelchair tennis) equivalent of John Lennon meeting Paul McCartney, or Steve Jobs hooking up with Steve Wozniak – creating an alchemy that changed things forever.”
“(We) had the opportunity to start an organization,” Parks has said. “to develop the sport,
organize tournaments, and give exhibitions and clinics to show and teach others to play. It caught on and we all felt this was a very special sport at that time, allowing the disabled the ability to play with able-bodied friends.” He was right.
Today the Wheelchair Tennis Tour comprises more than 150 tournaments in 41 countries,
with $1,500,000 in purse money. The sport is currently being played in 100 countries and is
included in all four major professional tennis events.
Brad Parks remained a competitor, he rode the wave of wheelchair tennis to the highest levels,
winning the US Open three times. He helped the sport become an Olympic/Paralympics event,
and then he won three gold medals.
I never met Brad Parks. But he is one of my heroes. He not only found a way to rise above
a misfortunate fate, but would eventually change the lives of thousands of competitive athletes; those who had felt hopelessly confined to wheelchairs around the world, and bring them along with him. In the end, history will leave Brad Parks’ name among the best in the sport of tennis. The International Tennis Hall of Fame is home to some incredible athletes. He is enshrined alongside John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert.
And ... as the famed sportswriter Jim Murray once said of Parks ... “He did it all sitting down.”
Brad Parks was inducted on our own San Clemente Wall of Fame in a public ceremony on the 18th of May at the San Clemente Aquatics Center. He was inducted with Pro footballs’ Brian de la Puente. For more information on the event, see page 12.