US Marine and Adaptive Tennis Player
In the blink of a proverbial instant, a life can change, dreams may be altered and new pathways forged. My name is Damian Wright, US Marine, tennis player, and an eternal warrior.
This is how it all began. ( Cue dramatic music)
I thought I had it all planned out, but funny how those plans can vanish in a moment, or a flash. I started playing tennis when I was 5 years old in Annapolis, MD. I trained at Sports Fit, Severn Valley, the Brigade Sports Complex and The Annapolis Area Christian School. I was a rising national junior player out of Severna Park, Maryland slugging it out through the USTA tournament pathway, playing the local junior tournaments, doing the four day regionals, and I even played the “Zoo”, making it to the 4th round. That’s the Kalamazoo tournament, the highest level amateur tennis tournament in America. By 2008 I was ranked #16 in Maryland, #48 in the Mid Atlantic Division and #248 in the US. In my mind, and that of my father, I was on the road to becoming a pro tennis player.
My first stint with formal instruction was with Ed Mchough. He taught me the basic fundamentals of the game, creating a framework for my groundstrokes and showing me how to comport myself on and off the court. He didn’t want to mold just another player, but also to form a person. I truly respected how he would take the time to explain his methods and purpose. I also hit a buttload of balls in the development of my serve under coach Mchough’s tutelage. He was the one who was most responsible for shaping my serve into the weapon it has become. I would serve 500-1000 balls a day, honing that serve, under the unwavering eye of Ed Mchough.
Coach Mchough wanted me to see the court as a battlefield, with the net as the dividing line between our “territory”. He demonstrated how the angles of the target lines could “pull” an opponent away from a position of neutrality into one of a more defensive position. I worked on a consistent game, trying not to miss a single shot. In my USTA matches, I wore people down, methodically brutal.
I was rising in the ranks. In the MidAtlantic division of the USTA I was ranked #1 in the Boys 16s. But, my father knew I needed to get to that next level, to keep pushing the envelope. It was really difficult, but I knew I had to move on from coach Mchough. At some of the regional tournaments, was a familiar face. He was intense, quietly absorbing the nuances of his player’s movement and decisions as he faced the opponent. My father approached him, had a few words, a nod of a head, and they planned an introductory work out. That was how I began to work under coach, Bob Detrich. I don’t think all coaches are insane, but it just seems that way. There’s a certain timber to every voice, a tension which connotes surprise, acceptance or anger. During my time with coach Detrich, I heard the gamut of emotions.
During one particular practice match I chose to strike a ball down the line at the “wrong time”. I could feel the anger rise, before it came into vocal embodiment. “DAMIAN!……”. Racquets went flying across the court. Needless to say it was burned into my soul, when to hit crosscourt, and when to seize an opportunity to drive a ball down the line. Coach Detrich taught me the “chess game” of tennis, how it was a matter of positional awareness of my opponent and myself, relative to the position of the court. I learned to exploit the openings, and to create opportunities, by using vertical trajectories, high and low; the use of power to force depth and court penetration; and the art of disguise, when to go behind a player that would anticipate my moves. It was an intricate battle of chess, played atop a hard green surface.
Physically, he pushed me to expand my capabilities, doing cone drills, flat sprints, jump rope, bench squats, hill sprints, whatever it took to be better, to have the physical ability to get to any shot, and to deliver a punishing blow. It wasn’t just a matter of getting the ball back, I had to be able to craft a shot that would have maximum “hurt” impact, no matter what was given to me. We worked on having constantly active footwork. If he didn’t hear my feet “squeak” I knew I would hear about it. He wanted me to be “faster than a cheetah”. We spent a multitude of hours perfecting my serve, hitting targets with spin, with power, and under different stress conditions. I had to get a kick serve that would bounce high and parallel to the net , so that my second serve would be a reliable weapon. My slice serve was designed to pull the receiver to the outside, setting him up for a forehand down the line. No mercy, no quarter.
Complaints were for the weak. I was a pretty stoic player, never saying much, whether I hit a great shot or a terrible error. I wanted my actions and my results to speak for me. Coach Detrich taught me to keep a level head, not matter what. If I was down, just keep fighting, use the open areas of the court, find his weakness and pound it. He told me that the opponent could be as “nervous” as I was, that he could make “unforced errors” too. He told me that to close out a match was a really hard task to do; you had to have the mental weapons to complete the job. You have to be able to obliterate the self doubts, and only focus on one point at a time. My nickname by Coach Detrich was US Open. It was a portent of things to come.
My two biggest weapons have always been my serve, and my forehand. I could put it on a dime, with precision and power. My best weapon has been, and always will be, my willingness to grind. I may not always win, but I will make you wish you never had to play me. I will never give up. I will never tank. I will give my all to finish the job.
The Bollettieri or IMG academy. To take my game up to that “next level” on the way to the pros, I knew I had to play where all the elite level players trained. I was lucky that I was good enough to obtain a full scholarship to the IMG academy. I just didn’t know at the time, just how hard it was going to be. I thought I trained hard and was already in “great shape”. I had no idea. In hindsight, I was totally clueless.
It was just grueling. Imagine boot camp times ten, but that’s a story for the future. No wonder Agassi went there. We would rise at 4:30 am for a six mile run, eat breakfast, train for 5 hours from 7am to 12 noon working on forehands, perfecting the backhand, serves, overheads, volleys and whatever other stroke remained. At noon we would break for lunch, then have 1-3 hours of physical training and at the end of the day we were “allowed” to play matches until we would drag ourselves into dinner at 6 pm. I never ran so much in my life, did so many med ball crunches, or ran up so many stairs. Each tortuous lung burning exercise was designed to push us to reach a higher level of tolerance, to achieve our true potential, and to develop a belief in ourselves. During one forehand drill, there was a subset workout which you had to complete before returning to the drill. If you missed a forehand, you had to complete ten Russian twists, twenty med ball slams- alternating sides, and five explosive sprints; it was only after you completed the gauntlet, that you were allowed to rejoin the group. Competition was the cauldron of fire in which we found our mental and physical strength , or faltered and realized the limitations of our existence.
The coaches perfected my ground strokes and volleys and really strived for ultimate fitness and excellence every waking moment. There were no “off days”, you were required to meet your goals, and then the goals were set even higher. You know you are not prepared for the IMG Academy when after the first day of practice you have a full body cramp the next day. I spent the next day after that collapse, recovering with gatorade and rest. Still, it was surreal, to be with some of the best juniors in the world, wondering, as so many of them did, “Was I really good enough? If I really did fit in with the group”. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed playing with the players from all over the world. It was a crazy mix of partial English, native languages and a chaos of melding of cultures. They were all good players and you could really get beaten one day and just beat them as badly the next time you faced them. It was at once, very humbling and enlightening. One never knows if he can “cut it” until he puts himself out there, into the fire of competition. I think that’s why all the match play was held at the end, so that you ( and the coaches) could see what was “left in the tank”.
Playing in the US Open. My game progressed due to the constant stream of quality competition and the aggressive nature of the physical and mental training. You either got better, or you went home. Eventually, my game was good enough to make the qualifiers for the US Open, the biggest stage in the country, in the craziest city in the States. I played one international player in the quarterfinal round of the “qualies”. He was from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I really didn’t know too much about him, as I suspect that he knew just as much about me. Most of the players, other than the seasoned few, were just “ happy to be there”. I got smoked in the first set losing 1-6, before battling back with my serve and forehand to even it up at 7-6. I was up 4-3 in the third set, when I found I could no longer hold the racquet. The pain was excruciating, and the tendon of my forearm caused me to retire from the match. It was the last time I had ever played a tournament level match, before the amputation.
There comes a point in life in which there is a major fork in the road, and one has to decide the pathways of one’s life. Our decisions are made based upon pleasing some source, but I wanted that source to be me. Even though I was offered a full scholarship to Ohio State University, I chose the Marine Corps because I wasn’t ready for college and wanted to really challenge myself in a different way. My father, a multiple Phd. educated man, wanted and expected me to continue on my road through college, but I needed to set my own path, after seeing the road to “being a pro” set before me. I wasn’t at the top of the international ranks, even though I was one of the best in the nation. I really questioned if I was even going to make to the pro ranks. Deep within, I knew that had to form my life in my own way.
The Marine Corps taught me more than just mental toughness, but also how to lead and make decisions on your own. Boot camp was held at Paris Island, South Carolina. Here, we were tested physically and mentally, to rise to greater heights and to push beyond what we previously thought of that we were capable. Funny, but the grind of training at the IMG academy was actually harder, than boot camp! While other cadets, were in agony, I would just inwardly smile and keep on going. Bollittierri came from a paratrooper background, so maybe that was the rationale behind the intensive workouts. In the Marine Corps I was an Infantry Rifleman. I was stationed in LeJeune, North Carolina in the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine. I eventually deployed to Afghanistan, Jordan, and Japan – Hokkaido.
Hokkaido Hell. We trained here to be ready to battle in the worlds most harshest conditions. It was brutally cold, and we ran in full battle gear, hiked for miles and set up camp in the snow. At that time, there was close to 22 feet of snow on the ground. Our division comprised of approximately 400 infantrymen and 8 Hokkaido civilians. Eight of the civilians died from the cold, but we did not lose a single soldier.
Much like the bitter relentless cold of Hokkaido, my soul became the same. We were trained to feel nothing, to understand the orders and complete the task. As marines we were at our peak, both physically and mentally, but all I could do to describe my persona at that time was that “ I became numb to everything”.
How I lost my leg. A definition of SNAFU. In February of 2011 we were training in Camp Geiger, North Carolina, slogging a 20k hike in night conditions. I didn’t see the hole that trapped my left leg. The darkness enveloped me. Like a “grunt”, I thought I just needed to suck it up and soldier on, but it hurt like hell. At the infirmary, it was diagnosed as plantar fasciitis, a soft tissue injury, so I rolled a soda can on the bottom of my foot for three years, waiting for the pain to subside. The symptoms increased steadily, until 2016 when I could no longer walk, I couldn’t get through the pain that tore through my body with each step of agony. I had a radiograph preformed and a broken navicular ( heel) bone was discovered. During the five years of waiting, the heel had undergone navicular necrosis. On August 2016, I received a surgery to extend the calf muscle of my left leg and had a bone transplant from the ilium of the hip. At this point I was relegated to movement on a knee scooter. It was a far cry from those 6 mile runs at IMG.
Complications. On April 2017 the heel developed Mueller Wise syndrome, a shifting of the heel to alleviate pain, so the heel was surgically repositioned and pinned using stabilizing bolts. Unfortunately in July 2017, I developed MRSA ( methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus ) which further complicated the matter. It was not healing, I could not walk and it continued to hurt. It was at that time that I decided to have an amputation. This was a major decision in so many ways, but I needed to be mobile and without constant pain. I could deal with the most adverse of circumstances, but to move on, I had to leave my leg behind.
Stating the obvious. I mean, obviously, with the amputation of the left leg (below the knee), I could not return to full active duty, and the most likely career course would be some sort of administration position, ie. Desk Jockey. With that sort of limitation, I realized that I needed to expand my horizons into the private sector, finish a college degree, and explore other options. Being an amputee, I knew I could be a living example for others, to break self limiting barriers based on physical “standards”. I enjoyed my career in the military but it was time to move on. I needed to be back on that court.
It was in May 2017 when I heard of this group in Maryland offering tennis instruction to the veterans. I didn’t want to give up the sport, that was so much a part of me, tennis was ingrained as part of my identity. With or without a leg, I was still a tennis player. I just had to find out if I still had it.
On the courts of Kentlands, was where I met Coach Karl Lee, the founder of Wounded Warrior Tennis ( https://iambearlee.wixsite.com/website-2wwt). He was a certified USPTA tennis coach, but before that role, he was a dentist and had his office in the area. One of his patients was involved in the “Gerryhattricks” hockey program for injured military veterans. Coach Lee inquired if there was a similar program created for tennis, and when he heard that there wasn’t a tennis training institution, he decided to form one himself. I looked around at the motley crew that came out to hit, Stephanie- missing a leg, Bryce – our adaptive athletic coordinator- limited use of his legs, Paul- shrapnel wounds to his wrist and elbow, Ron- some sort of impairment, and me- on a kneeboard, wielding a tennis racquet, and wheeling around on the court. We may not have seemed like tennis players, but I can tell you that we would try like hell. For my part, I didn’t want to be harnessed to a chair. I aimed to adapt to my amputation below the knee and fitted with a prothesis. I wanted to be a fully mobile player, at least that’s how I pictured it in my mind.
The first few swings were rough, I won’t lie about that. I whiffed on a few, and shanked a few more. Still I was back on the court, I was hitting, certainly not like before my service, but I was on a court and in my element. You couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face in a million years.
Coach didn’t take it easy on me either. When I told him I was an exBolittierri student ( IMG academy) , he wanted to see just how good I really was. I understood, because you always get those guys who can talk a great game, but stink it up when they hit the court. He put me in a deep volley drill, driving the ball with force in quick reaction repetitions, Coach was testing my eye- hand coordination, albeit acknowledging my limitations on the lower mobility. I was going great too, until I misjudged that one shot, that one shot which pegged me in my “male parts’ and knocked me off the board and I went horizontal . Coach didn’t flinch, didn’t even come over to help me up. He just said “Man down”, and walked away. I knew right then, that this was my new coach. After a few moments, I could breathe again. Damn, that felt great.
In April 2018, my left leg was finally amputated and the long road to recovery finally began. It was months of stray pain, and a slow realization that the leg was permanently gone. Some days I would think about playing as a “whole person”, but I’m too much of a pragmatist to live on dreams and wishes. One thing that tennis teaches you is that you need to survive any loss by getting better. You either get better, or you go home. And I wasn’t about to quit. It’s not in my vocabulary. In August I finally began to walk again, starting with only a few steps on a new prothesis. It was the proverbial “one step at a time”, because balance and coordination of all the body was a steep learning curve. The weight distribution needed to be relearned with each swing of a leg/ prothesis. I never had to think of how I was going to step – plant and push off, now it was a continual cycle. It was a time of success in minute increments. Needless to say, I would check now and then, taking a peek to see if the leg was “really missing”. It was.
I didn’t get back to tennis till October 2018 and two months later I finally started playing like I remembered how I once played. The game was still a work in progress, and I had to change with the changes. I would put a hurt on a ball in one strike, then whiff on another. But that’s tennis. Not only did I have to relearn how to move to the ball, but I had to believe that I wasn’t going to face plant with each shot. Many goals come to mind with this sport and my goals are simple. Inspire others to be able to achieve their dreams and goals by being a living example of achievement. Coach Karl Lee is a definite crazy man and an unorthodox coach. He will use anything and everything to communicate a specific tennis skill and get me to make it a part of my game. Still, I could not have asked for a better coach. He has been my coach since I had my left leg amputated and he brought some significant changes into my game with the loss of the limb. He altered my backhand from a two handed backhand to a one handed backhand, because I didn’t have the mobility I once had. “You have to relearn to trust your shot, trust your ability to land and push off,” he said. To help me stabilize my serve, I had to be able to land on my new prothesis. Coach Lee used a Bosu ball, to get me used to the feeling of pushing off the ground and landing. It was unstable and wobbly at first, but with persistence, I could nail my serve. He didn’t treat my amputation as a “handicap”, but rather as another challenge to overcome and adapt.
Coach Lee knows how to push me to my potential, with a mixture of patience, analysis and advice. He had me do a drill were he was serving on the service line and I had to return the ball the best I could. The ball seemed like it was flying off of his racquet, but I still had to read, react and drive the ball to a target. It was only after I had shown some sort of success , that he then moved his position to the baseline. From there, it seemed like I had all the time in the world. His teaching method is much different than most other coaches but it works with me the best. In another drill, the emphasis was on the early prep, the drop and drive, for picking the ball up just after the bounce to take time and space away from the opponent. He stood only about 5 feet away from me and bounced balls to my forehand and backhand side. As quick as I could, I would react to the ball, prep my shot, fire it down the line and recover for the next one. It was a brutal drill, but it made me not even think about my leg, as I just had to react, trusting my body to follow my lead. Some of the drills were for tennis, and some were for “trust”.
I learned to train my mind as a Bento Box. The obstacles would be put in their different compartments, and handled with their unique solutions. This is how is would respond to the stress of the incoming ball, to react within milliseconds, judging the trajectory, speed and spin, the body positioning of my opponent, and my position relative to him. Solve each problem, one section at a time. Don’t’ let the box overwhelm you.
In the winter, we began training indoors at Quince Orchard Swim and Tennis Club. Coach Lee would stay for an extra hour to work on my game, to put away a point within 3 shots because my mobility could be a liability in the longer rallies. I also augmented my training at JTTC at College Park, hitting with some of the top junior players in the nation. One day a familiar face appeared on the court, where I was training and asked if I wanted to hit some balls. It was Frances Tiafoe, ATP pro, originally from Sierra Leone, trained at JTTC.
On April 27. 2019 I stepped back into the tournament atmosphere. It was my first time playing with something more than a practice match at stake. It was the CAST ( Carolina Adaptive Standing Tennis) tournament, held at Pine Top, North Carolina, where John Isner trained as a youth. I was back in the tournament setting, where a match could bring out some answers regarding your game, good or bad. I had to see if could hang with the players of a similar situation, I still had questions in my mind.
At the very first moment that the ball left my tossing hand and signaled the start of my first match, I still had those butterflies. I still had waves of doubt, and the questions that my inner demons kept asking.
But used all my experiences that I had gone through, to keep the faith in myself, to keep competing in battle, to find a way to survive. With every stroke I grew more confident. My opponent was a very match savvy player from Japan, who knew how to work a ball into the open court. I faced a mixture of spins, heights and positions. I knew I had to work my tail off. And I have never been afraid to work hard. It was a proverbial dogfight, a turf war over who would hold the final advantage in the 2 1/2 hour match . I eventually won 6-4, 6-3. Guts and guile.
In the semifinals, my opponent was one of those players who would hit “ all or nothing”. He would blast the ball, with the hopes of ending the point early. But even for able bodied players, it’s a tough task on clay, where patience and fitness prevails. You have to love the grind, to keep driving to the ball and hit the ball with a generous amount of spin. You have to love to get up at 4:30 am and go for a 6 mile run, or slog thru the snows of Hokaido. If I gave him a crosscourt shot, that ball would be blasted back. So I changed my tactics and got him to run by setting up for a down the line shot. I took away his weapon by adapting to what was presented to me. I won 6-1, 6-1. On to the finals!!
My opponent in the finals was Jeff Bourns, the #5 ranked TAP ( Tennis Adaptive Players) in the world. The “safe game” had to go out the window. I knew with this level of player, I had to bring some heat. My first serve was on point, at 90%; second serves were at 80%. I brought the big guns out and started blasting, but with a good measure of control.
Like any smart player, Bourns started to adjust to my game and was able to meet the pace. I continued to dominate with the forehand, and drove the stroke when forced to move. Due to my training, my footwork was excellent, I was prepared for the change of directions on the clay, using a slide pattern honed back in DC. I managed to corral a ton of balls, and sent them back in a hurry. Funny, how calm I was, even with the fans in the stands, and the thought of being in the finals. I won 6-2 in the first set.
No backing off the pedal now. I worked too damn hard to let off the gas. I guessed that he would throw in a few different looks, and he did just that. Bourns adjusted his return stance, trying to take my kicker second serve, but I just kicked it even more, and aced him. On more than one occasion I faked the forehand drive and deftly hit a drop shot instead. Picked up quite a few points using that maneuver.
During one point I was jammed to the far deuce side, and Jeff was covering the crosscourt, daring me to go deep, waiting to blast a shot down the line with his forehand. Again, thanks to my training, I was prepared. Coach had me hit a lot of sharp angled shots, using the “Russian Angle “ drill ( thanks Matz!) . Instead of taking the bait, I ripped a shot to the near sideline, with an absolute ton of spin, using my entire core, and trusting my prosthesis to absorb the force. I’ll remember that one for a long time to come. I won 6-1 in the second.
I texted Coach Lee that “we did it!” It was a team effort, but one step in a very long journey.
Where to now? Onward and Upwards. I now know this pathway is much bigger than for just one player from Severna Park. This is about leading others to realize what is within themselves. “Quit” does not exist. I am selected to represent my country in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. We have a lot more training to do.
Summary- (drum roll)
My most Important lessons learned since the drastic changes are as follows:
1. You have to worry about your bodyit’s the only one you will ever get, take care of the temple
2. Push, but know your limits- if you don’t explore the boundaries, you will never know how far you can go
3. Never under estimate your capabilities- see above
4. Smile because you never know who is having a worse day- it’s a big universe out there, we live more connected than you know
5. Be you- whatever version of You is you
6. Adapt and Survive: Always
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