GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Four and a half years after a scuba diving accident left him in a wheelchair, a West Michigan tennis player has aspirations to play in the Paralympics.
More than 70 players from all over the world participated in the U.S. Midwest Wheelchair Outdoor Tennis Championship in Grand Rapids, which concluded this weekend. They ranged from novices to Paralympians, including two of the top five ranked U.S. women and the top three ranked U.S. men.
One of those was West Michigan’s own Matthew Devlieger. He’s the reigning national collegiate wheelchair tennis champion, is ranked No. 3 in the nation and is now ranked among the top 100 players in the world.
“I just played a tournament in California, and I got to the finals and then I jumped into the Top 100, which was great,” Devlieger said.
In December 2009, Devlieger — then a 21-year-old tennis standout at Calvin College — was injured while scuba diving during a family vacation.
“I got decompression sickness,” he said. “Surfaced too quickly, and then air expanded inside me, so it was like a spinal stroke.”
He was paralyzed from the chest down.
“I tried not to focus on the negatives, and I tried to focus on what I could do, so I tried to stay positive,” Devlieger said.
He underwent two years of grueling rehab. Though he was told he would never walk again, Devlieger has regained some movement in his legs.
He was back on the court by April 2012.
“When I got injured, I really didn’t have a clue that I could play tennis again,” he said.
Now, he competes at the highest level of wheelchair tennis. He hopes to qualify for the Paralympics in 2016.
“I just needed to get stronger so I can push and turn myself around the court easier. It will also help my stroke,” Devlieger said.
And he hopes to one day walk again.
“I need to exercise a lot to train my body to get that reciprocal patterning done,” he said.