The Necessity of Re-dreaming
By Randy Snow
Over the 1990-91 tennis season, I had won 68 matches in a row, 15 straight tournaments and was on my way to winning 2 gold medals in Barcelona. I was the king of wheelchair tennis.
But as life places us on extraordinary ascending pathways, where things are going so smoothly we think we have it all figured out, it can also take us to the down side of advantage, like the prison of paralysis, where we wonder what our next move is?
I was training at South Austin Tennis Center for Sydney, my fourth Paralympic games and was hitting lots of balls…racket back, preparation, “see the seams,” follow through…focusing on the most important thing in tennis and in life…nothing. The environment was the usual with the sounds of a ladies tennis league, a blue bird sky and windless day, the resonance of the pressure building in the machine as each ball fell into the shoot, then the “whoosh” as it passed through the rollers on its way to me. But in the background for over an hour, I could faintly hear the echo of a ball being hit.
I acquiesced with a glance and saw this kid hitting a ball against a backboard, over and over. He was a little boy, about seven, with a beige hat, striped shirt and blue shorts, and a racket and one faded tennis ball. I couldn’t see his face as his hat was pulled down over his brow. I stopped training and my mind began to stray. How many times had I done the same thing, trained by myself in innocent youth and sport for hours on end? I began to wonder…
My mind drifted back to July 28, 1975, to a hot and arid field where we were baling hay. As I lifted another anonymous 1000 lb. bale into the air with the front end loader, something went wrong and it fell backwards, crushing me into the steering compartment of the tractor. I immediately went through a one way door, as there was no going back. Everything I had used to qualify my life prior to my injury was gone. The traumatic accident broke my back and paralyzed my tennis playing sixteen-year-old body from the waist down. And as expected, the contrast of being a ranked tennis player to living my life from a wheelchair was devastating, and held the mark of lost dreams, pity and regret. For years to come, my next move would be in question.
I drifted back to the sound of the ball being hit against the backboard.
What if that boy was to break his back someday like me, and have to abruptly stop everything he was doing and had planned to do? What if his early dreams of athletic and personal success were permanently derailed, forcing him to learn how to dress again, at sixteen years old? What if he had to deal with excruciating pain, constant stereotypes, inaccessibility, and social ignorance? God, I hope not.
Yet what if he was able to participate in Olympic competition and know what it was like to represent his country? What if he was able to influence the presidents of companies and countries? What if he was able to help change the attitudes of millions of people around the world through sport, encouraging people to focus on what they had rather than dwell on what they didn’t? God, I hope so.
I was drawn to him and said, “Hey, you ever hit on a ball machine before?” He said, “ No sir.” “I’m almost finished. You want to hit a few shots on this machine?” “Yes sir.” He came out of the fenced training area, around the corner and into my court. I set him up where the balls would be at a successful level, turned on the machine and he began to hit. The balls went everywhere. When the machine emptied, he started to leave. I drew from my experiences and remembered what the great 1920’s French tennis player Jean Borotra told me when I received the number one player-in-the-world award at the 1991 ITF World Champion Dinner. He said, “Young man, I don’t really know what it is you do, but do it as long as you can.” Mr. Borotra was 89 at the time and died the next year. I shared these words with the kid and he said, “Yes sir.”
He went back to the backboard and took up hitting again. On the fourth stroke, he hit the ball over the backboard. Embarrassed, he looked around to see if anyone had noticed, put his racket down, trotted around the fence to retrieve the ball, returned and started over.
As a tear swelled in my eye, I bonded with the boy. I knew his focus, his determination and his love. And I was reminded what my next move will always be.
People, dreams make everyday life tolerable. In speaking to companies and schools, I encourage people to dream big. Without dreams life would be mediocre. My early dreams had nothing to do with overcoming a spinal cord injury, wheelchair sports or a speaking career. They were filled with playing tennis like Jimmy Conners and winning the U.S. Open. I dreamed of being successful in business, traveling around the world and being surrounded by kids. Initially, my spinal cord injury dashed any hope of achieving those dreams. It is difficult when the expectations we place on our lives aren’t met.
But sometimes re-dreaming is necessary. As I reflect on the twenty-five years after that hot July day, I now know that my childhood dreams were realized. Not only did I win the U.S. Open, I won it ten times. I just happened to win it in a wheelchair. I have been very successful, having plenty of money and my travel dreams have been achieved as I have definitely “surfed the earth.” The only problem with frequent flyer miles is you can’t make your house payment with them. And lastly, I have 5 younger sisters so every time I go home, there is another niece or nephew that I look forward to introducing myself to (obvious exaggeration), as I am surrounded by children. All my early dreams have come true, just not along the path that I had planned.
I was driving in the small lake community of Heath, Texas (where I lived several years ago) and came upon an intersection that I had previously crossed hundreds of times, either on my hand-cycle or in my car. As I approached, I observed a new four way stop sign at the corner. I thought of the intersection before the stop sign, and how it had seemed just fine the way it was. Now people passing by this junction would have to adjust their busy lives, break their routine and be more aware of their surroundings. For reasons presumed yet not fully known, some form of a Higher Power (the City of Heath) placed this obstacle in the path of passing people.
Slowing my car, I noticed a beautiful old farmhouse with a red barn, and horses and goats in an accompanying pasture. As I stopped, our family friend, Mr. Stephens, was coming the other way and had also stopped. He offered a friendly Texas wave.
Continuing on to my parent’s house, it dawned on me that this four way stop sign was a metaphor for my accident. Originally a huge inconvenience and continuously questioned, it helped me realize that God intended for me to slow down, learn something new and have a completely different perspective than before. My accident was placed in my life for the purpose of seeing through different lenses. In fact these lenses were even turned around so I could have a completely new perspective of my self, that was previously unavailable from the way I was living.
Sometimes when events happen in our life, we superficially acknowledge, criticize the inconvenience, hastily question why and move on. Stuck in an old mindset, this event may provide a new way of looking at life that was unappreciated before. This perspective may even protect us from something life-threatening.
It was written in some scriptorium long ago that after closing one door, God always opens another. What we forget sometimes is this door may not be open yet. It may not even be a door at all, but a window hidden behind some curtains. In fact, this window may not even be in the same house. But these openings will definitely be there. One must work a little harder to discover them. To quote the Reverend Mother in the Sound of Music, “We have to find our life.” Small hidden doors open into large glorious rooms. Had I not experienced my accident I never would have really lived, seen what I have seen, nor met the wonderful people I have met. I never would have developed the necessary process it takes to absorb, adapt and move on. My accident made me a human being rather than a human doing.
Randy Snow is a “retired” wheelchair tennis player, speaker and writer who lives in Austin, Texas. For more information on speaking programs or his book “Pushing Forward,” see www.randysnow.com or www.kendallhunt.com.