The US Open is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the US Open Wheelchair Competition in 2017, with the best wheelchair players from around the world returning to Flushing Meadows. Throughout the tournament, we are spotlighting the standout wheelchair athletes taking part in the event here at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. We’re looking within to see what it takes to train and compete as an elite athlete, and we’re looking beyond to see how these athletes spend their time off the court.
Here, we look at two-time US Open quad champion and defending doubles champion David Wagner.
David Wagner seems to be surrounded by the letter “W”. There’s the W from his last name, or the W's from his hometown of Walla Walla, Wash., but the most W's he has are the wins he’s clocked on the tennis court.
In 1995 Wagner was enjoying a day at Redondo Beach in Calif., playing frisbee with a friend, when tragedy struck. The frisbee was thrown out towards the ocean, and when Wagner jumped in to the water to retrieve it, the wave broke, and he fell on his neck. The fall broke his neck and damaged his spinal cord, leaving David unable to walk and categorizing him as a C6 quadriplegic.
Four years after his accident, Wagner, a former collegiate athlete, was thumbing through a magazine when he came across an ad for a USTA wheelchair camp.
“In ’99, I was thumbing through a magazine called "Sports and Spokes," which is basically "Sports Illustrated" for disabled athletes, and I saw an ad for a wheelchair tennis clinic in Beaverton, Ore., and I was like ‘Wow! That sounds cool!’ I loved tennis before, why don’t I give it a try.”
So Wagner did sign up, and fortunately for him, he was able to learn from some of the best players and coaches in the game.
“The No. 1 in the men’s division Randy Snow, No. 1 in the quad division at the time Rick Draney, and [former USTA national wheelchair] coach Dan James was there. So I lucked out to be able to learn wheelchair tennis from three of the pioneers of wheelchair tennis in the United States. What a better way to start a sport than learn from the best?”
Wagner continued to play, and soon started to enter professional tournaments.
By 2003, he had become the No. 1-ranked quad wheelchair tennis player in the world. His list of accolades is long. Throughout his career, he has amassed a staggering 1,200 career singles and doubles wins. Wagner has captured eight medals in the quad divisions of the Paralympic Games, including three doubles gold medals with partner and compatriot Nick Taylor. Wagner’s first Grand Slam singles title came in 2010, when he won the US Open. He captured the Open crown again in 2011. Wagner is back in Flushing Medows, looking to win his eighth US Open quad doubles titles, seven of which he won with long time doubles partner Nick Taylor.
When off the court, Wagner spends time watching and supporting his two favorite home state teams, the Seattle Seahawks and the Seattle Mariners. His fandom is so strong that when he won his fifth French wheelchair doubles title in June, he threw on a Mariners jersey for his pictures with the trophy.
In 2000, Wagner got his degree from Walla Walla University in elementary education. Wagner’s tennis career may have kept him out of the classroom, but he’s been able to use his degree on the court, giving back to the game that’s given him so much success. Wagner has been involved in USTA wheelchair camps nationwide, and for the last six years has taught at one in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“It’s been a great time, and it’s really fun to draw on what I’ve learned in college and from sports to be a teacher."
As any good teacher would be, Wagner is supportive, encouraging anyone interested in the sport to pick up a racquet and get swinging.
“The beauty of wheelchair tennis is, it doesn’t have to be wheelchair against wheelchair. It can be standing player against someone in a wheelchair. That’s what makes it so much fun. I would just say enjoy it, soak it all in, have fun doing it, learn as much as you can, and hit the ball and have fun. It’s such a wonderful sport that anyone trying for the first time would really enjoy it.”