A new Charlotte nonprofit creates a statewide network for wheelchair tennis players.
by Michelle Boudin • photographs by Kelsie Elizabeth Photography
Tennis has always been the go-to sport for the Leonard family. Helen Leonard grew up playing on a backyard court her dad built. Her husband plays, and both of their daughters were on the team at Charlotte Catholic High School.
The sport is so much a part of their family experience that when they moved to Charlotte in 2010 after her husband, Bill, took a job at Atrium Health, the couple immediately knew they wanted to get involved in the local tennis community.
“Tennis has always been one of the things in a new community that’s opened doors for us and helped us form new relationships,” says Leonard, who lived in Wilmington, Pinehurst, Concord and upstate South Carolina before landing in the Queen City.
It’s also been a way for the couple to give back.
“When we moved to Charlotte, we volunteered with an adaptive sports program for tennis players. We had a small group of players, and we started playing weekly with them. Over several years, we realized there were limited opportunities for wheelchair tennis in Charlotte and in North Carolina.”
It was through the Adaptive Sports and Adventures Program’s wheelchair tennis group that Leonard met Charlotte native Kelly Flohouse. The Piper Glen resident has been in a wheelchair since she broke her neck in a diving accident in 2015.
“After recovery and rehab, I was living at home and isolated, and I was looking to get back into the community,” Flohouse says. “I realized this was a path for me. It empowered me — it showed me my capabilities, not my disability.”
Last summer, Leonard and Flohouse began talking with USTA North Carolina about developing a statewide wheelchair tennis organization. They established Wheel Serve NC as a nonprofit in late 2020.
The volunteer-run tennis association — Leonard and Flohouse are co-executive directors — offers a chance for people in wheelchairs to play recreationally and competitively across the state, with chapters in Charlotte, Asheville, Cary, Greensboro and Wilmington. Additional sites are in the works.
“Players wanted more opportunities,” explains Leonard, who in February 2019 was awarded the USTA NC Adaptive Tennis Award for her commitment and dedication to the sport. “Typically, what you see nationally is pictures of elite wheelchair athletes who have made it to the Paralympics, but what we recognized was missing was the recreational opportunities for others,” Leonard says.
The only difference between wheelchair tennis and able-bodied tennis is that the wheelchair players get two bounces.
The Wheel Serve Charlotte group plays Wednesdays at Queens University’s Howard Levine Tennis Center on Tyvola Road. Eric Pierce, 62, has used a wheelchair since 1997 when his multiple sclerosis prevented him from getting around without a walker. He plays once a week with the group.
“This has been a breath of fresh air to have an organized program — and on a regular basis year-round,” Pierce says. “On the court, we’re just people out there having fun. We’re with friends, and we become family. Being with people like us — we don’t see each other’s wheelchairs, we see each other, and in the process, there is camaraderie and friendship and exercise and sunshine — it spirals into the rest of our lives, having the ability to be a part of a program like this.”
As a player, Flohouse’s experience has been similar.
“Tennis has been the conduit for me,” Flohouse says. “I arrived on the court isolated in every way, and I left there connected — physically, mentally and socially.”
Leonard says she’s the one who’s grateful.
“When I first started playing, it was a way for me to give back,” Leonard says. “In reality, when I look back, wheelchair tennis has given so much more to me. It’s given me a great perspective. These athletes I play with are some of the most positive people I’ve ever met, and they’ve taught me many lessons. They’re a wonderful group of people, and they deserve access to tennis.” SP