To get to the tennis court, Conner Stroud pushes his own wheelchair there.
This is made more difficult by the fact that he has no legs.
Conner, 15, then does the intricate dance required to climb into that wheelchair. He straps himself in, pulls his racquet out from the back pocket of the wheelchair and removes the “blades” he uses as artificial legs. Then he yanks a tennis ball stored between the spokes out of his wheelchair and starts hitting, and quickly you realize that Conner doesn’t want pity. Conner wants to slug a forehand for a winner.
Conner currently ranks as the No. 1 junior wheelchair tennis player in the United States and as one of the top 15 in the world. A rising 10th-grader, he also starts on his high school team, playing against able-bodied players while still in his wheelchair. Conner does that well enough that last season he was the No. 3 player for Thomas Jefferson High in Mooresboro, 60 miles west of Charlotte.
While Conner loses more often than not in high school matches – a wheelchair can’t jump or change directions nearly as quickly as an able-bodied player – he wins almost all the time against other wheelchair athletes. In either case, he rarely stops smiling.
“I like playing tennis because of the competition mostly,” says Conner, who was born with a rare, non-hereditary disability called PFFD. “You meet new people and you get to have fun. Win or lose, you can still have fun.”
In high school boys’ tennis – a sport I have both played and coached – frustration is a central theme. You’ve got testosterone, teenagers and no referees. It is a boiling cauldron of possibility.
Racquets sometimes get thrown. Players scream at themselves after missed shots or dispute line calls.
I have watched Conner play several full matches, and he never does any of that. The most demonstrative he ever becomes is when he pantomimes clapping with his racquet – always applauding an opponent’s good shot, not his own.
“I just try to stay positive,” Conner says. “After every point, I try to say I’m going to win the next point, or the next game, or the next set – or the next match if I lose the whole match.
“There’s always room to be positive. You can always win another time.”
But don’t misunderstand.
Conner plays in a wheelchair and has won a statewide sportsmanship award, but he is also remarkably competitive. That quality – along with some amazing hand-eye coordination and a supportive family that includes two tennis coaches for parents – has allowed him to arrow through the ranks in wheelchair tennis.
He was one of three members selected for the United States earlier this summer in the biggest junior wheelchair team tennis event in the world – the World Team Cup. Conner played six matches in Turkey in May and won five of them as the U.S. won the junior wheelchair title for the first time since 2000.
Says Jason Harnett, a coach from California who is on the United States Tennis Association’s national staff and has worked extensively with Conner: “He is a polite boy and very well-mannered, but he will rip your heart out trying to beat you. It’s nothing personal. It’s ‘Hey, I like you and we’re going to get lunch afterward, but right now I’m going to beat you as bad as I can.’ You see that attitude in a lot of the best players, whether able-bodied or disabled.”
‘Sort of a double whammy’
It is easy to see there is something different about Conner.
He has long preferred shorter sets of artificial legs to longer prosthetics because he moves faster that way. So when he walks into a public place he looks like a four-foot tall 15-year-old with a mouthful of braces. The lower half of his body is mostly gone.
Says his father, Dewey, who once played on Clemson’s tennis team: “Wherever Conner goes, people look and say, ‘I wonder what happened to him?’ So Conner has always had eyes on him. You go in a restaurant and little kids always look. It’s just human nature. It’s funny to see how they strain to see, and their mamas are grabbing them away.”
Conner was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), which affects somewhere around one in 100,000 children. It is a non-hereditary birth defect.
There are four levels of PFFD. Conner ended up with the worst one. “About 85 percent of the children born with it only have one leg affected,” Conner’s mother, Rita Stroud, says, “and they’ll have one normal leg and one that could be two inches shorter or severely shorter. Basically there is a problem when the limb buds are forming at the hip joint during pregnancy. Conner got it on both sides and the worst kind – it was sort of a double whammy.”
When Conner was born, the Strouds already had two older children who are now grown – their daughter is a nurse in Asheville and their son just graduated from Appalachian State. They knew through tests during Rita’s pregnancy that Conner would have PFFD. Doctors warned them it was likely he would never walk.
Conner had no femurs, hips, ankles or knees when he was born. He had no spinal paralysis, however, and his brain was unaffected. And he had feet.
Specialists told the Strouds that his feet would never be able to be weight-bearing, however, and recommended that they amputate the front part of each foot and leave the heels. At age two, Conner had that surgery at the Shriners Hospital in Greenville, S.C., and he has never had to have another surgery since.
Conner learned to walk on his heels and still does so – albeit with a twisting gait necessary because he has no hip joints. With his “blade” attachments, he can navigate stairs and even run.
Praise from Nadal
Conner began playing tennis at age 5 at the small tennis club his parents own in Forest City (the family lives in nearby Rutherfordton). With his parents often giving lessons, it was either sit there and watch or join in, and Conner has never been much for sitting around.
“It’s hard to remember a time I wasn’t playing,” Conner says.
For years, Conner played strictly able-bodied tennis on his “stubbies” – basically rubber stoppers attached to the stumps of his legs. Despite being a foot or two shorter than many of his opponents, he won a number of matches. He became well-known enough that he got to hit with Andy Roddick and Jim Courier and to meet Rafael Nadal, his favorite player, at the U.S. Open in 2013.
“The most important thing is that he’s happy,” Nadal told reporters about Conner after that 15-minute meeting. “He’s playing tennis. ...That’s a great example that you can be happy even if life doesn’t give you everything. It’s a big example for me and should be a big example for a lot of people.”
Says Conner of that meeting with Nadal: “He was really nice to talk to – and a little hard to understand with his accent.”
’His upside is tremendous’
As able-bodied players got older, they started hitting the ball harder and Conner found he too often could no longer get to the ball to hit it. He had always balked at playing in a wheelchair, but finally decided to try it at age 13 at a local clinic.
Conner was so good so fast that the USTA immediately took notice and invited him to a camp in Mission Viejo, Calif.
“He had the tennis part down right away,” says Harnett, the USTA coach. “He didn’t have the wheelchair part down. There are all sorts of nuances in using a tennis wheelchair, and that was the biggest hurdle.”
In wheelchair tennis, all the rules are the same except players are allowed two bounces to hit the ball rather than one. But the movement is very different. Players learn to become one with their tennis-specific wheelchairs, which have wheels curved inward for quicker navigation.
Quickly, Conner improved. By age 14, he was playing for the U.S. in the World Team Cup for the first time. Now he is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. – although he played No. 2 for the U.S. at the World Team Cup behind a 17-year-old American returning from injury.
“As some of the older boys age out, his ranking is only going to climb,” Harnett says of Conner. “He’s got a chance to get to No. 1 in the world as a junior in the next couple of years.”
“That’s what I want to do,” Conner says. “And then I want to become top 10 in the world as an adult player, then the top adult player in the United States, and then No. 1 in the world as an adult.”
There are some full college scholarships available for wheelchair tennis, and the top 10 players in the world can actually make a living in the sport. The best players get to play the Grand Slam tournaments at the same time the able-bodied players do.
“I know he was very good on his stumps,” Harnett says, “but in the able-bodied tennis world he was always going to be limited in how far he can go. In a wheelchair, though, his upside is tremendous – a Paralympic gold medal. Travel the world. Play Wimbledon. That’s pretty good.”
For now, though, Stroud is happy navigating both tennis worlds – all the while learning to drive a car with hand controls. He already has his learner’s permit.
How hard is it to drive?
“I think it’s pretty easy,” Conner says, shrugging.
“He thinks it’s good to have that license,” his mother laughs. “I think it’s terrible!”
Ability vs. disability
Conner still plans to play high school tennis every year against able-bodied opponents, too. In March, I watched Conner play a close match against Lincoln Charter High’s Jackson Law, an all-conference tennis player.
Conner took an early 3-2 lead.
“He had an ingenious way of moving his wheelchair around on the court – mostly turning the wheelchair around completely – which made it seem like he was able to travel faster,” Law remembers.
Law eventually turned things around and won the match, but not before his level of respect for Conner’s tennis game had heightened.
“Conner was an incredible player and person,” Law says. “Very mature. Very respectful. He has overcome so much. I hope to play him again.”
By the time the match was over, parents and relatives who had been watching the other courts had crowded around to see Conner play.
They all started their whispered conversations remarking on Conner’s disability.
After 20 minutes, all they could talk about was Conner’s ability.
When it was over, Conner rolled to the net to shake Law’s hand, then dismounted from his wheelchair and pushed it slowly off the court. I walked up to Conner, leaned down and congratulated him on his performance.
“Thanks,” he said. “How long until we get to play doubles?”