Steve Everett's smile, almost as brilliant as the sun, illuminated the courts at which he had arrived by wheelchair. His days are busy, exciting ones, full of dreams coming true. The world is great, and he glides atop it, a tennis champion with a title to defend; a young man in love, with a woman to marry.
"I've got some news for you. I proposed to Diane during Christmas," Everett, 22, told his friend, William Judd, 56, who was in his own wheelchair. They were about to play a match last Friday at Long Beach City College, where Everett is a student and Judd is a counselor.
Everett's racket was being taped tightly to his right hand by Nabeel Barakat, an instructor in adaptive physical education at the college and the coach of Everett and Judd.
"Circulation gets to be a problem," said Everett, who won the Quad Division of the U.S. Open National Wheelchair Tennis Championships at the Irvine Racquet Club in October.
"After two or three sets, that's when he gets numb and that's when I try to beat him," joked Judd, a tournament player himself. "I've played this squirt 3 years and haven't beaten him yet."
Both played with astonishing ability. Judd, his disability less severe, swung freely, driving a hard shot that Everett chased down by working the controls of his electric chair.
Shot Spun Out of Reach
Once positioned, Everett swung mightily, inviting bruised ribs and a sore back. He kept his left hand, which hung limply, next to his chest. His body wrenched in the chair and would have spilled from it, had it not been for a safety belt.
His shot arched over the net and spun out of reach for a point.
"He has great anticipation, good control and is very smart," Barakat said as he watched Everett from the sideline. "He doesn't have killer strokes but knows how to put the ball away. He's very consistent in returning balls and has a great drop shot."
And he's not much of a squirt anymore, although had he risen from the chair he would have stood only 5 feet 5 inches. Last year he concentrated on eating, weightlifting and swimming, a combination that gave him some bulk and pleased him almost as much as the backhand he suddenly acquired.
"Getting a little nervous, are you?" Judd called over to Everett, who was down 30-40. But Everett, who had also read up on mental toughness last year, took the next 3 points to win a shortened match.
"Want to jump the net?" Everett asked. His smile was still in place.
"People are always saying about me: 'He's such a trooper,' " Everett said, leaving the courts and wheeling toward the corner of Carson Street and Clark Avenue, en route to his family home 10 minutes away in Lakewood. "I guess it's because I smile so much. But I don't want to be known as a trooper, the oh-he's-so-courageous type. I want people to watch me and say, not that I'm an inspiration, but, 'Look at the skill.' "
Because he has limited use of his arms and hands, Everett competes with quadriplegics, although he is not one himself. The misfortune that befell him occurred not in some terrible auto crash or sports accident--such as the one Judd had in high school gymnastics--but while he was in his mother's womb. "Basically, I became tangled in the umbilical cord," he said.
Stricken by Bone Disease
Arthrogyrposis was the result, a bone disease that prevented his body from forming properly. When he was 7, surgery on his clubbed feet enabled him to walk with braces. But he walks rarely. "It's very hard and pretty painful," he said. "Mostly, I'm in the chair."
He grew up with a disdain for chess and checkers, the games many people deemed best for him. When he got his leg braces, he played tackle football with his cousins on the front lawn, breaking his arm three times. At Jordan High School in North Long Beach, he organized a wheelchair basketball team. In 1984, at a camp at Saddleback College for wheelchair athletes, he took up wheelchair tennis, which is the same as regular tennis except that the ball is permitted to bounce twice.
"How in the heck am I going to do this?" he wondered at first, before deciding to have the racket taped to his hand in the same manner he once affixed a whiffle-ball bat.
Encouraged by Brad Parks, considered the world's No. 1 wheelchair tennis player, Everett began playing in tournaments. For the last three years, he has competed against about 30 quads on the Grand Prix Circuit, last season playing in Reno, Palm Desert, Houston and Grand Rapids, Mich. Everest & Jennings, a company that makes wheelchairs, sponsors the circuit. E & J pays for three of Everett's tournaments each year because he is on its national promotional team, a group of handicapped tennis players in all divisions, chosen for ability and personality.
Then, each October, about 300 players participate in the various divisions at the U.S. Open. Everett has won the U.S. Open doubles title three straight years, but last year was the first time he reached the singles finals, where he defeated Mitch Stephens.