Spinal Cord Injury Inspires Tennis Player to Improve Disableds’ Mobility
***image1***Life is like a wheel, revolving from hope to despair and back again.
Few understand this journey better than Kris Geroux, a wheelchair-bound player who visited Charleston last month for the USA League Tennis Southern Sectional Championships.
Armed with grit, determination and an array of powerful tennis strokes, the 38-year-old Mississippi native competed against able-bodied players in the Men’s 3.0 Division in hellish heat and humidity, a prospect that was potentially life threatening to him.
“Because of my spinal cord injury, I don’t sweat,” Geroux said. “Actually, playing in that kind of heat was a good experience for me because I learned I could still perform. We had an ice chest on the court and I made sure that I kept drinking lots of liquids.”
When he rolled onto the court July 23, it was the 16th anniversary of his catastrophic accident on I-10 in Harrison County, Miss. He flipped his vehicle while trying to avoid a deer and was severely injured. Paralyzed from the chest down, the 22-year-old Air Force Airman E-3 spent time in southern Mississippi hospitals, including a month immobilized in a cervical halo. He was later transferred to a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in October 1989 to begin rehabilitation.
“I was just a typical kid who never thought something like this could happen to me,” he said. “When you’re that age you think you’re immortal.”
But Geroux didn’t wallow in self-pity, thanks to his natural carpe-diem disposition and the unwavering support of his parents, Al and Dorothy, and four older siblings. The entire family would make a six-hour drive each weekend to visit him as he underwent therapy.
“My family is everything to me,” Geroux said. “Without their support I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
An equally important person is his wife, Jean Ann. They had met three weeks before his accident in Gulfport, Miss. where Kris was playing in a two-on-two basketball tournament.
“We got caught in a downpour under a gazebo and started talking,” he said.
Jean Ann later visited her future husband in the hospital and discovered they had many things in common, including being born in the same hospital only hours apart. An accomplished tennis player herself, she is very supportive, he said.
Determined to rebuild his life, Geroux enrolled at Mississippi State University and graduated in 1996 with a degree in biological engineering. He later earned a certificate in assistive technology from Louisiana Tech University in 2001. This cutting-edge field is helping disabled people gain a large measure of independence.
“We now have devices that allow people to control their environment with voice commands,” Geroux said. “Wheelchairs are lighter and faster and it’s much easier for them to be independent.”
The general public doesn’t realize that many everyday technologies evolved because of assistive technology and the disabled community. One common example is power windows on vehicles.
After graduation, Geroux wrote software programs and later was employed by the Mississippi Dept. of Rehabilitation Services where he is now assistive technology coordinator.
“In assistive technology there is research going on in a number of different locations throughout the world,” he said. “I recently returned from the RESNA (Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Association of North America) conference in Atlanta. Computers are always the hot topic at this conference with their ease of use for those with physical limitations.”
The South has a higher than average number of accidents involving paralysis, according to Geroux.
“Because of the nice weather, more people are active outdoors,” he said. “They’re riding 4-wheeler ATVs which can flip and cause serious injuries. A lot of people go deer hunting and fall out of tree deer stands and break their necks.”
An avid athlete in his youth, Geroux got involved in wheelchair sports after his injury. He played wheelchair basketball and competed in wheelchair racing before discovering a passion for tennis.
“I’d played a little tennis as a kid,” he said. “But when I got to Mississippi State I met members of the tennis team, who were mostly foreign players. They really helped me develop my strokes and my game.”
Geroux became a standout competitor on the wheelchair tennis circuit, amassing a number of gold medals and climbing to a No. 5 national ranking. Ten years ago he began playing against able-bodied players for the Starkville, Miss. United States Tennis Association (USTA) league team. The Starkville team compiled its best-ever record this year, capturing the East Mississippi district title.
Although Geroux’s team didn’t fare well in Charleston sectional play, he is looking forward to another run next year.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “If there’s one message I’d like to send to disabled people it is this: Just because you’re disabled, you don’t have to stay home if you don’t want to. Thanks to assistive technology, there are huge opportunities available. You just have to take advantage of them.”