WALLA WALLA — David Wagner planned on being an elementary school teacher.
Instead, the 39-year-old Walla Walla native became the No. 1 quadriplegic singles and doubles wheelchair tennis player in the world.
Wagner, who was paralyzed in 1995 in a freak beach accident, returned to the Walla Walla Valley to share his story with local students last week.
Wagner’s life has not been easy, but he said it was an honor to come back and show people just how much the support of the community has meant to him.
“We all have terrible things happen in our lives,” Wagner said. “To some extent, some are worse than others. But it’s really how you rebound off of those things that define who you are as a person. I wasn’t going to let it not let me do what I wanted to do.”
Wagner rebounded from his accident by winning three Paralympic gold medals and four Grand Slam singles titles.
But he had not even picked up a tennis racket until he was a freshman at Walla Walla Community College in 1994.
Wagner grew up as an avid basketball player, playing during his high school days at Walla Walla High School. But after feeling burned out from hoops, Wagner said he noticed a couple extra pounds around his midsection.
In hopes of getting more exercise, Wagner saw an open tryout for the WWCC tennis team. After making the team, Wagner said he could not put the racket down. He would join friends regularly for late-night tennis sessions that would extend until 3 or 4 in the morning, he said.
“I couldn’t get enough of it,” Wagner said. “Not that Walla Walla is a hotbed for tennis, but I befriended anyone and everyone that knew anything about tennis and tried to learn as much as I could.”
But then tragedy struck.
While on vacation in Redondo, Calif., Wagner was playing frisbee with some friends on the beach. He said a wave broke and he attempted to jump over it, but didn’t get high enough. The wave hit his feet and jack-knifed his body, which slammed his head into the ocean floor and left him paralyzed.
With a lot of uncertainty suddenly surrounding him, Wagner rallied behind what he called his support staff — friends, family and the community of Walla Walla.
“It made it easy — I wouldn’t say simple, but it made it more manageable,” Wagner said. “When I had a rough day, I could call any one of my friends or my family members and vent or let out some frustration.
“That doesn’t mean I didn’t have long nights with my mom and crying and dealing with the loss of becoming paralyzed,” he said. “Of course you have those, but what are you going to do? You can let it bog you down for the rest of your life or you can say OK, what’s next?”
After finishing a rehabilitation program in Spokane, Wagner returned to Walla Walla in 1996 to complete his schooling. Once he was back in the Valley, he witnessed the generosity from the community firsthand.
He said the community raised money to buy him his first wheelchair, it helped his family pay for his rehabilitation and also donated countless time to helping him.
“The community of Walla Walla, being a local kid here, they really rallied behind us — me and my family,” Wagner said. “They were so supportive and generous. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Wagner finished up at WWCC in 1996 and then enrolled at Walla Walla College (now University) to earn an elementary education degree.
During his senior year at WWU, Wagner started watching a lot of tennis matches, he said. He then saw an advertisement for a wheelchair tennis camp taught by Rick Draney, who was then the top-ranked quadriplegic player in the world.
In preparation for the camp, Wagner decided to try his hand at wheelchair tennis.
“Here I am trying to hold the racket, and I’m trying to hit a two-handed backhand, and that didn’t work,” Wagner said. “I’m trying to hit a forehand and that doesn’t work because the racket just keeps falling out of my hand. I’m like there is no way a quadriplegic plays wheelchair tennis.”
At the camp, Wagner learned about the specially outfitted wheelchairs made for tennis. The chairs have 20 degrees of camber, which increases the width of the wheelchair across the bottom. It adds lateral stability, and allows players to move around the court easier, Wagner said. There is also a third wheel added to the back of the chair, which restricts players from tipping over, he said.
With a new chair and some athletic tape, Wagner’s obsession with tennis was intensifying.
“I jumped in a tennis chair,” Wagner said. “I taped the racket to my hand. They taught me all the stuff I needed to know. Instantaneously, that bug for tennis came right back. The love for tennis is the best way to describe it — (I) just couldn’t get enough of it.”
With a better understanding of the game, Wagner finished first in an amateur tournament in 2000. He then turned professional in 2001.
He spent the first two and half years of his professional career as the pupil — constantly learning and observing what the best players did, he said.
However, that work didn’t materialize to success on the court, as Wagner said he finished his first two years without any tournament wins.
“I took my lumps and I took my losses from the players at the time who were really good,” Wagner said. “I watched and studied and learned how to become better. Then (I) just started figuring it out. Then, once I started figuring it out, they were in trouble for a while.”
Wagner must have figured it out, because in 2003, he was the No. 1-ranked U.S. quad player.
Now, with an Australian Open singles title, two U.S. Open singles titles and five Masters singles championships, Wagner has spent the last decade-plus ranked in the top three at all times.
Wagner attributes that sustained success to his unwavering commitment to be the best.
“I want to get better,” Wagner said. “I can be in better shape or I can be a better tennis player. I can be faster. I can be stronger. There’s always room for improvement. I don’t think you can plateau in tennis no matter who you are.”
Wagner won this year’s U.S. Open doubles title with partner Nick Taylor on Sept. 7.
For a kid who first picked up a tennis racket at age 19, Wagner said he couldn’t have dreamt of playing at the U.S. Open.
“I’m sure I had dreams of it, as anybody would playing tennis,” Wagner said. “But I knew I was past my prime in tennis years for the able-bodied world. I would never have dreamt in a million years.”
As someone who has represented his country at the Paralympic games multiple times, Wagner still finds himself falling for the game that has given him so much.
After his playing days are done, Wagner said he plans on starting a foundation to help paralyzed children have the same opportunity he did.
“It’s a good run for a decade’s worth of tennis,” Wagner said. “Every time I get on the court, I love what I do. I love preparing for what I do. I love being in the gym. I love being on the court training. I love being in the pool. I love lifting weights. I love every aspect of it and I think if I didn’t, it would be time to decide what’s next in my life.
“And what’s next will probably be something cool, too.”