Brad Parks | Paralympian & Founder of Wheelchair Tennis
Brad Parks | Founder of Wheelchair Tennis, International Tennis Hall of Famer & Gold-Medal Paralympian
Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.
Open hearts, clear paths. Let’s go.
Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I am Alycia. I am so excited about this interview today. We literally have one of the most influential, successful, impactful people with disabilities.
He is an innovator. He has opened the doors for so many people with disabilities. He is an advocate. He is a mentor. He is a coach. He is a friend. He is part of my family.
I have Brad Parks.
Thank you, Brad. So much for taking time out of your busy schedule to spend a little time with your good old friend, Alycia, welcome.
Brad Parks: Thank you. It is nice to be here.
Alycia Anderson: Brad Parks is the co-founder of Wheelchair Tennis. He founded the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis back in like what ’80.
Brad Parks: 1980.
Alycia Anderson: Before you founded wheelchair tennis and had all this growth in your organization, it was not a sport that was recognized under those umbrellas. So, for it to be recognized in Wimbledon and French Open… in Australian Open and U.S. Open and all these professional events that wheelchair tennis is under the umbrella now and competing in those stages. It is a success on the ventures of inclusion.
Brad Parks: Absolutely.
Alycia Anderson: It is huge!
Brad Parks: In 1981, I was at a banquet for the National Wheelchair Athletic Association. They ran track and field and swimming and all the Olympic sports. They were the national governing body for the Paralympics. The Commissioner of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association came to me at the banquet before the 1981 National Wheelchair Games. He told me… he goes Brad, you are wasting your time trying to develop this sport, wheelchair tennis. Wheelchair tennis is not a feasible sport.
And I tell you what, that devastated me because I felt like I was playing wheelchair tennis. That devastated me because I thought you know I am pretty young. OK, you know when I started I was probably about 21 in 1980.
I thought, am I kidding myself? I mean, I just did not know, but it was years later when I realized there was a couple of situations where I realized that yes, we are playing. And, I did run into this guy and he apologized.
So, it was a long road, but I mean you look at it now and it is mind boggling to just see where the sport is today and you know there are professional athletes making a pretty decent living and competing in wheelchair tennis.
Alycia Anderson: So why tennis?
Brad Parks: Sure… Well, I played… I do not know when I was about 12 years old, I got my first tennis lesson and I did it with some other friends. And so, I had a couple of guys that I played with growing up.
My freshman year in college, I went to the University of Utah, my two main sports were snow skiing and surfing. And, I was competing in an intermountain. They called it an Intermountain.
So, throughout the Rocky Mountains they had college age kids. They had freestyle skiing, freestyle was, I guess, kind of a rebel type sport for skiing. In those days, you know, you had the racing. And in freestyle they had, it was professional. So, there was a professional tour and they were… it was very popular in the early to mid-70s, so this is 1975.
I am a freshman in college. I did want it to go to school, but I also wanted to ski. So, I am going to the University of Utah and I was injured in the very first competition that we had to qualify to do backflips and different things to compete. In this tour. You know, I just was warming up for the competition that afternoon and I over rotated the back flip and broke my back.
So, when I am in the hospital, and I finally come to the realization that I will probably never walk again.
So, I thought, well, what am I gonna do with my life?
I was 18 years old; you know, I knew I wanted to eventually go back to college, but I also love to do sports and to compete. And I… tennis was on my mind because that following summer, one of my goals was to become a better tennis player. So that was on my mind and how I got into track was simply that I wanted to learn to move the wheelchair better, so I pushed a lot.
I actually saw Dave Kiley… you remember Dave, right?
Alycia Anderson: Mm hmm.
Brad Parks: I saw him compete you know in a wheelchair race and it just completely blew my mind.
The strategy. The pure athletic ability, I mean, I see this guy and I had heard about him, and in the way that he competed in this race, it just… It was so exciting.
And they… they are competing in really basic wheelchairs. It is like almost like that first wheelchair you had.
Alycia Anderson: Like almost like hospital style. Very clunky, heavy, big unfit uncustomized chairs. Correct?
Brad Parks: Exactly. So, you would… you would modify stuff in your garage with a hacksaw or whatever. It was really rough and eventually they got to the point where they had bigger kind of air pneumatic tires in the front. And, that gave it a little bit of a smoother roll and then they started going to a push rim that was smaller. And so there was some things that were going on in those days, and it was a few years later when the chairs really started to come on, but…
Alycia Anderson: Is it safe to assume? That you are part of that, that innovative technological space.
Brad Parks: Every wheelchair racer in my day was part of that and you know, they were guys make and we are all making them in our garage. And then I actually started… I was one of the founders of the very first lightweight wheelchair companies called Quadra Wheelchairs.
We came up with this plan and everything. You know, we were pushing it along and then transitioning to wheelchair tennis. First tournament was in 1977. So, we did this clinic at in Irvine and that is where we met.
Your parents read about it in the paper and they brought you and your sister along. I do not know if you are four… maybe you are four years old.
Alycia Anderson: I have always been told that my parents approached you at this clinic and they looked at this sport as something that we could play as a family and wanted to see if you would teach both myself and my sister who is able bodied.
And you were so kind and willing to do that, and my claim to fame is, and you tell me if I am wrong because I have been telling the story. That I was one of the first, if not the first, kid that started playing tennis with you.
And, it was because my mom had approached you and you were so willing to teach me these foundational pieces of my life that have impacted me.
You know, every time I am speaking, I get asked like, what is the most foundational thing that you were ever taught?
And it was that my parents threw me on the tennis court with you, and I became one with my chair through play, I became competitive. I became strong. I learned about fitness.
I learned how to be a strong kid through play, which I think is a really, really, really impactful lesson for parents and kids with disabilities.
And, I was never a Paralympic athlete. Though, now that you are talking about track, I remember you coaching me like you gotta cross train and do track, and that. And, now I am connecting the dots that the importance of being probably even a little bit better with my chair. And that came from you as well. But these were huge for my life, huge!
So, this is such an important story of, like, history. Not only that you created… So, you founded a sport that was not there, you created this thing, this, this opportunity for people globally.
It is being played around the world from a professional standpoint where you know, it started in… You know, cutting apart wheelchairs to creating the technology of the lightweight wheelchair that we all use now that it is customized to our bodies and fits and allows us to move.
It is so important. You are the godfather. Like you are totally like godfather!
Brad Parks: Well, you know that clinic was a big thing because we did… a we had done clinics…, you know me and different guys and guys who I worked with at Quadra. done. Done many clinics and things over the years.
And, that clinic was different because after that clinic then, you know, the guy who was running teaching tennis on those courts was Dave Saltz and Mike Jacobs, we all got together. We decided to form this organization. This thing came, opportunity came along and I thought you know I am going to give it a year to run this organization.
Of course, 20 years later, you know, we are handing it off to the USTA.
This was an opportunity that I could not let go, and I wanted to get this sport going.
I loved it. I wanted to see more people playing. I felt it was important.
A little set back with that guy from the basketball association who told me it is never going to work.
Alycia Anderson: We’re told a lot, no. Not possible. Cannot. Do not.
I think, to the theme of this podcast, pushing through the things that people think that we cannot do. When you have it in your heart, you know that you can that this is something you gotta go for it, and that is exactly what you did.
It is powerful.
This is a great success story of inclusion. This is taking something that was not developed, creating it, launching it, advocating for it, growing it, and then look at where we are today. The sport is embedded in able bodied tennis tournaments and on top of that Brad the equipment!
I know that you helped guide my parents in creating equipment that fit my body that I could move easier, that I could navigate my own space as well as I possibly could figure out independently.
And it is so important. All these cool things that you have done.
Brad Parks: It was really fun to teach you because you actually… you and your sister was really fun and I had a great little relationship with your mom. And she was so good on the way she mothered you, too. And she was an amazing lady.
Your dad was an amazing guy too. But, you know, your mom was who I pretty much. You know, dealt with all the time on your lessons and it was a pleasure to work with you because you know you and your sister were both so athletic.
And I could tell right from the very beginning that. You had the gifts to be a great racer and I probably. I am not sure if I told you that, but I can remember thinking that I remember talking to you about that at during the sports camp.
You know that we started, you know, that was in 1981, so that was only a year… We had that camp a year after our organization.
The first year all we really did was a series of clinics and we kind of started trying to bring this sport together because we had all these tournaments and we wanted to bring it under an umbrella.
Within a year or two, we were doing exhibitions at Davis Cup matches.
Alycia Anderson: Wow.
Brad Parks: But never at… And we were doing exhibitions and things at a lot of professional tennis tournaments… but never at the US Open.
Of course, you look at it today, and they are making well… there was well over $1,000,000 in prize money for wheelchair tennis this year.
Alycia Anderson: Wow.
Brad Parks: You had juniors, you know, I do not even know if you know this, but there was juniors that were playing in the US Open this year.
Cause you know they have able bodied juniors for years playing in the US Open. Well, we had wheelchair tennis juniors.
So, it was history, not only $1,000,000 in prize money, and I think they expanded to 16 men and 16 women competing in the US Open for wheelchair tennis. Plus, they had, I believe, eight boys and girls.
Alycia Anderson: Wow.
Brad Parks: The inspiration from that camp came from, you know, David Kiley, who was also a wheelchair tennis player, but a very good wheelchair basketball player… very good in all sports, but you know, he actually was our camp director for that very first year.
Alycia Anderson: Let us take a quick break. You are listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia.
Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I have Brad Parks. He is an innovator.
He has opened the doors for so many people with disabilities.
That camp, just to explain it a little bit, was once a year and it was for a full week and we would get to be out of school for this week and we would get to go to this camp. And, camp had… how many sports, probably like 8 to 10 different sports, basketball, weightlifting, archery, tennis, track and field, swimming.
It was the one time as a kid with a disability that you could go into an environment that you are on equal playing field with everyone else.
I loved it because I felt like I could disappear in a crowd. I could go in the middle of the gym and you know I would not be sticking out… like ohh, there is the kid in the wheelchair.
It taught me so many social skills. I met my husband at camp.
And, you opened up so many doors by just creating the things that were not there yet. And, I mean it is literally changed the world.
From there, I mean, let us toot your horn for a minute. Right!?!
Like, we have got Paralympic gold. You have been inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Can I have your autograph please!?!
I mean, you have been… you have had many international awards, the amount of accolades and awards that you have achieved in your life in this sport and in this movement, most people will never even accomplish one of those things. I mean, congratulations.
Brad Parks: I do not know, but I would imagine there were people on the committee who…, when they finally did induct me, it was in 2010…, you know…, wheelchair sports and the disability movement, I do not know what you want to call it…, had made a lot of progress. You know where the ADA and different things.
So, but I am sure there are a lot of people who were, like, going… No [chuckles], we are not going to… we are not going to induct this guy into the Hall of Fame.
But there were… obviously were some people who were behind it, and supported it.
And after I was inducted. You know, I figured I was gonna be… I was gonna be the only guy [in a wheelchair] inducted. Well, then they formed a wheelchair category.
So today you have a wheelchair category, so now you have the top two women players inducted, Monique Kalkman and Chantal Vandierendonck.
And then you have Randy Snow, myself, and David Hall, inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Well, now get this!
This year, no able-bodied person was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame International Tennis Hall of Fame, not one. The only two people who are being inducted this year is Rick Draney for being the best quad wheelchair tennis player and then Esther Vergeer.
So, I mean, yeah, all these awards are fantastic. All I… and to be honest with you… all I wanted to do when I started the organization, all I wanted to do… was get people to enjoy playing tennis.
Alycia Anderson: You’re starting to create all these things, and you are also, I am assuming, dealing with being a disabled person now.
Brad Parks: I had this thing in my head that I did not want my friends and people I know, or my family or whatever, to feel sorry for me and look down on me as this poor guy in a wheelchair sort of thing.
And I wanted them to see me… as just… me.
Alycia Anderson: For me, you were the one example of somebody with a disability that I could follow.
Whatever comes with the creations and the impact that you have made in this world you absolutely deserve. It is so important.
And, I love it that you kept saying like you just wanted people to see me for me.
I get up on stage when I speak. If you look at the logo of my business, it is a heart and it says see me
And that is all I must have learned that from you. All I have ever wanted is for people to, See me. For me.
We need to start looking at people with disabilities for who they are and all these amazing talented things that they encompass. I mean instead of just… this…like, wheelchair.
Brad Parks: You know the…, you know, like even the lightweight wheelchairs, when that started being designed after I got hurt.
I started going to UC Santa Barbara, halfway between Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach. Jeff Minnebraker lived and I used to pop in, and he made this lightweight wheelchair.
You would see him in that chair all the time and one day when I was coming back from college, I said can I try your chair? One-day…? He goes…, let us do it right now! And so, we transferred. So, we do that. I am sitting in this chair!
So, what impacted me the most was I am looking at him sitting in my chair. My chair was more of a hospital type wheelchair. He was sitting in this one with no short back, no armrest, cambered wheels, pretty sleek looking. It was rough looking aluminum, but at the time it was really sleek and everything else.
And I am going, Wow. You look so handicapped! And I go…! I go, that is how I look!!!
And it was just the wheelchair… and the wheelchair that we have today is a huge improvement over those.
Alycia Anderson: It is absolutely key that we all have the right equipment to get through what we need to get through. So…
Brad Parks: I am involved in this camp; it is called the national wheelchair… National Wheelchair Camp. One of the things that they focus on one segment of the camp is how to kind of keep your chair in-tune, you know, tune chair.
Alycia Anderson: Oh, I love that.
Brad Parks: Keep it… And that was something that I never even thought of when we ran our camp, but teaching the camp people how to even if as small as putting air in your tires and keeping those tuned up and making sure that…
Alycia Anderson: Cleaning the hair out of the front wheels.
Brad Parks: Big part of it was cleaning the hair out of the front wheels. I mean, and I do that on a regular basis now just after that camp, because it makes such a difference. And you know, if the bearings go bad, it is pretty tough. I mean, I do not know if you or Marty know how to do that, but…
Alycia Anderson: Marty does, but I do not.
Brad Parks: Yeah, Marty I am sure does.
Alycia Anderson: I wish he would have taught me this at camp Brad. OK, we found one thing we could have done.
Brad Parks: It really is, and it is so important because I know a lot of people who do not. You know, you look at their tires… So, I say, hey, bring your chair over to the house and I will get it all fixed up.
It drives me crazy now because if you have…, if you have your chairs tires pumped up to at least 100 pounds… you know, let us say it is 120-pound tire or maybe even 140-pound tire.
If you have at least 100 pounds and if you have all the hair and gunk out of those front casters, what a difference it makes.
Alycia Anderson: You are flying right!?!
Brad Parks: It really makes such a difference.
Alycia Anderson: Where are we today?
Brad Parks: What am I doing?
Alycia Anderson: Yeah.
Brad Parks: Well, yeah. OK. Well, you know, one of the daughters is getting married, which I mentioned. And we are, that’s kind of the big thing for us! And Wendy’s retired and I would say I am kind of semi, you know retired.
We love to, I love to ski. So, I skied 60 days last year, got a lot of skiing in. And we / I have a mountain bike and I have a paddle board.
And, one day I was with one of my friends that I used to race with was a guy named Jim Martinson and here we are riding our mountain bikes. We are up on this peak here. Maybe you know close to 9000 feet and we are just looking out over these views, and I looked at him and I remember saying, could you ever imagine and in all your dreams that one day you and I by ourselves could be in this spot!
Up in the mountains, on a trail, nobody around but us. Two disabled guys in wheelchair… who use wheelchairs, and could never have imagined that. Could never imagine skiing, could never imagine a lot of the things that wheelchair athletes are doing today.
Alycia Anderson: You’re up at the top of the hill. You are with your buddy. You both have. You are in this amazing equipment. You are independent. You are free. You are doing whatever you want. There is a ton of opportunity. What is the pushing forward moment there?
Brad Parks: I think never giving up. It is so easy to give up and to let yourself go. To be able to enjoy life I think to its fullest.
You could have given up. I could have given up. We all could have given up, and… do not give up… but just plug away and trust and do the best that you can.
Alycia Anderson: Do the best you can.
Brad Parks: To see you and your success and how you are doing, it is like I feel like kind of proud like a parent would. You are total inspiration to me and you always have been.
Alycia Anderson: I love you. I am trying to live up to your greatness. So, it is a lot of work, OK!
Brad Parks: You’re just doing what has become natural, which is great.
Alycia Anderson: Brad, thank you so much for coming on. I appreciate your time. This has been a wonderful conversation. Thank you for everybody out there, who decided to listen.
This is Pushing Forward with Alycia, and that is how we roll.