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FOR THE KIDS : Wheelchair Tennis : Disabilities don't stop these players from competing on the courts.

March 05, 1992|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At 15, Oscar Magallanes plays a pretty good game of tennis from a wheelchair.

Wheelchair?

You bet. Oscar, born with paralyzing spina bifida, wheels around the tennis court at lightning speed, with one hand gripping the racquet and the other gripping a tire.

He is among a rising crop of wheelchair tennis players in Ventura County. They'll be showing their stuff when the Ventura Parks and Recreation Department hosts its Hot Wheels Invitational Tennis Tournament March 14 and 15 at Ventura College.

This is a tennis tournament like no other. Wheelchair-bound disabled players are paired with able-bodied players for a series of round-robin doubles play. There is a division for adults and one for kids 8 to 17 years.

The proceeds from the tournament will benefit the department's recreational and sports programs for the disabled.

It was through the wheelchair tennis program that Oscar last year learned to swing a racquet.

He played well enough in August to place second in the junior division of the recreational department's first wheelchair tournament, the Gold Coast Classic, which drew about 50 athletes.

On the tennis court, Oscar rides in an ultra-lightweight wheelchair designed for speed. He won the wheelchair in a raffle last year during the tournament. With his husky frame, he is better at whizzing around the court to get to the ball than he is at actually hitting it.

But he is pretty new to the game. Oscar, an all-around athlete, is better at the other sports he engages in--basketball, weightlifting and track.

"They all come easy, but tennis is probably the hardest," he said recently after some practice on the courts at Ventura College. For someone who only took up the sport a year ago, he does as well as any able-bodied person who has played that long.

His passion is really track. Since 1984, he has trained with Jim Bucher, a Ventura wheelchair athlete who took several kids such as Oscar under his wing. With Bucher's help, Oscar has competed annually in the National Wheelchair Athletic Assn. competitions.

"He's ranked second in California in his division," Bucher said. "He's our top athlete."

Oscar competes in several distances ranging from 100 yards to 1,500 yards. He also does road races, and he clocked his best 10-K race last year in Santa Barbara at 33.52 minutes.

"He's got good drive," Bucher said. "Nothing really slows him down. He gets out in the chair and he stays out until he drops."

When he's not out doing "roadwork or pushing hills" with Bucher, he lifts weights three days a week.

Oscar, a shy kid, lives in Saticoy with his parents, who moved here from Mexico. The second of six children, he attends eighth grade at Balboa Middle School in Ventura, where science is his favorite subject.

When it comes to sports, he doesn't let his wheelchair stand in the way. At school he'll play basketball or football with able-bodied kids.

These days he's brushing up on his tennis. He confided that he hasn't played much since the tournament in August.

The competition is expected to draw wheelchair players from throughout California as well as Ventura County. An exhibition match on March 14 will feature Jim Black, ranked fourth in the world in wheelchair singles, playing against Hank Phister, a two-time U. S. Open seniors singles champion.

The sport of wheelchair tennis is booming, said Tito Bautista, who is instructing the next series of recreation department wheelchair tennis classes in May for players 8 years old and over.

With the formation in 1980 of the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis, the sport really took off, he said. Now the wheelchair athletes have their own U. S. Open tennis tournament. Athletes have sponsors now and they play for money.

"The top wheelchair people are amazing," said Bautista, 27, who placed second in the Gold Coast Classic's open division.

The rules for the game are pretty much the same as they are for standard tennis, he said. The key difference is that wheelchair players get two bounces instead of one.

As for instruction, wheelchair players are taught the same ground strokes and serve that able-bodied players use. They play mainly a base line game, opting not to play close to the net.

On Sunday, the second day of the event, able-bodied players will have a chance to man wheelchairs and play tennis with the wheelchair athletes. Four Ventura firefighters are among those who have signed up for the challenge.

The tournament is expected to draw 50 able-bodied and disabled players, recreation officials said. The sponsors for the event include BFI Services Group, Home Savings of America, KBBY Radio, Pleasant Valley Medical Supplies Inc., Knights of Columbus No. 2498, Ventura Rotary South and two wheelchair manufacturers, Sunrise Medical Quikie Designs and Everest and Jennings.

* WHERE AND WHEN

* The Hot Wheels Invitational Tennis Tournament, sponsored by the Ventura Parks and Recreation Department, will be March 14 and 15, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Ventura College courts. Wheelchair players will be paired with able-bodied players. Registration is $35 for adults and $25 for juniors 8-17 years; $15 for wheelchair participants. Deadline to register is Friday. For information, 658-4745.

* Wheelchair tennis classes will be offered again by the Ventura Parks and Recreation Department from May 2 to June 20 for players 8 years and older. The Saturday classes will run from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. The cost is $22. For information, call 658-4726.

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