Interview with College Wheelchair Tennis Player McKenna Woodhead
By Yana Fleyer on July 23, 2023
McKenna Woodhead is a 19-year-old quadriplegic athlete with amazing talent. Originally from New York, she moved with her family to South Carolina when she was 8 years old. At the age of 14 she was paralyzed from the chest down after a devastating boating accident. Now McKenna is a wheelchair tennis player at Clemson University where she studies recreational therapy. In the summer when she is not in school, she attends the Charlotte Wheelchair Tennis Program – Wheel Serve NC. She not only competes regularly in USTA tournaments, but also plays adaptive rugby. She is a great athlete, but more importantly, she is one of the nicest individuals on and off the court who one day strives to being able to help people reach their goals and dreams despite their disabilities.
I want to start from the beginning. Did you play sports when you were younger, before your injury?
Growing up I played soccer. I was going to play in college, that was my whole life. Then when I was 14, I had an accident, leaving me with a spinal cord injury. I knew I still wanted to be an athlete, so I was introduced to adaptive sports. Initially I played rugby. I was introduced to tennis when I started college because Clemson had a team. To be honest I didn’t like it when I first started, but then it grew on me the more I got to play.
Why did you choose Clemson? What attracted you the most, was it their academic program or adaptive sports program?
I chose Clemson University because they have a great community there. They also had a program for adaptive sports, although it is pretty small right now – I was the only student athlete, but we have two players coming in the fall which is very exciting because the last two years it has been just me. We have affiliate players who are the part of the university, in order to grow the team, they are allowed to play with us.
If you feel comfortable, could you please tell me about your injury?
I was 14 when I had a jet ski accident resulting in a spinal cord injury. I had a C7 neck injury that paralyzed me from chest down. I have limited function in my hands as well. So, when I do play tennis, I have to tape the racquet to my hand and I don’t have a core strength either so I wear a belt when I play.
Can you walk me through what you felt after the accident? How was your mental state and what helped you to overcome mental difficulties?
I feel like since I was so young, I didn’t really know the whole perspective of how much changed, but I didn’t know anything about spinal cord injuries at all or anything that has to do with wheelchairs in general, so it was a life changing situation for me. I think because I was young, I had a different mindset at that time, compared to people who get injured when they are older because they understand more. I had my family surrounding me - always there to help. Since I was in the hospital close to where I live my friends still visited me so that helped a lot too. Another positive experience was recreational therapy. This was where I was introduced to adaptive sports. That is probably what helped me the most, just being involved in different things like that.
Do you know people with similar story, but who really struggle mentally?
Yes. Everyone is different and everyone looks at it differently. Some need more support than others. And I feel very lucky with my situation, the help and support I received from my friends, family, and the community.
Let’s move on to your college experience. How is it going for you? What do you study and what future do you see for yourself?
My major is recreational therapy, and I am doing a minor in non-profit leadership. I just started my classes for recreational therapy last semester, and it has been very cool learning about the field.
Is it hard to balance school and sports?
I guess it wasn’t too hard for me because we only practice about 3 times a week in the mornings at 6am. This is the only time we can get a court, so we finish early and there is a whole day ahead. So, it is not too bad, and professors are really nice about it too and very supportive.
After you graduate, would you consider playing sports professionally?
Yes, if I could get there I definitely want to play for the rest of my life! And a really cool thing about wheelchair sports is that you can really do it forever. For example, I play against people who are much older than me and it so cool and inspiring to see them still play. So yes, I am definitely working for it, but we will see how things will turn out.
I know you play a lot of tournaments outside of college. How expensive is it to play wheelchair tennis and travel for tournaments?
The registration for tournaments is not the big deal, it is usually the traveling, the gas money or plane tickets and also the hotel is pretty expensive. Also, once you get started you have to get your own wheelchair, I mean you don’t have to, but to play to the best to your ability it is best to get a wheelchair that actually fits you. Those are also very expensive. Mine was around $8,000 and there are more expensive ones and also ones that are cheaper than that. I guess it depends on which one you are going with.
What do you think is missing in wheelchair sports industry?
I think awareness and publicity about it. I feel like USTA does a good job publicizing the wheelchair tennis, but more awareness about it would be good, because not many people know about it or people don’t watch it because it is simply not streamed the same as able-bodied tennis. Also, college adaptive sports is definitely something that needs to be improved as it is not that big, but I think it has been growing pretty fast recently. However, funding for college adaptive sports is very costly.
There are a lot of people with disabilities, new wheelchair users who are facing challenges whether mental or physical and staying at home and do not participate in any adaptive sports. What advice would you give them?
I would recommend that they to do research on sports programs around them. I also feel like if you are introduced to it early on it is better and it helps a lot. Definitely in bigger cities there are a lot more opportunities. In the suburbs it is harder to find something near you. For example, Wheel Serve Charlotte is an hour away from me and another adaptive sports group is also an hour away, so it might be hard if you don’t have a car or someone to take you places.
How did you find out about Wheel Serve NC?
I think my coach told me about it and introduced me to Wheel Serve. It was 2 years ago so I don’t remember all the details. But there are people of all ages, and it is an amazing community. Meeting other people with disabilities helped me a lot. They are all mentors for me at Wheel Serve NC and they teach me a lot.
Wheel Serve is not just about wheelchair tennis, it is about being a part of the team, it is about community and its people. Being a college athlete is about unwavering passion and commitment to both their sport and education. Being an adaptive sports college athlete is just the same. It is a very unique experience and can be very rewarding if you work towards it. Through this interview, we hope to shed light on the ups and downs of wheelchair sports and remarkable athletes, their dedication and love for sports. Wheelchair tennis players are athletes just like able-bodied tennis players. They share the same passion for the sport, work hard to improve their skills, and face similar challenges and triumphs on and off the court. Inclusion and diversity in sports are essential for creating a more understanding and accepting experience for all.
About the Writer, Yana Fleyer
Yana was born in Mogilev, a small city in Belarus. She started playing tennis at the young age of 6. She became a top ranked junior tennis player in Belarus by the age of 12 and was a player on the Belarusian National Team. With education as a priority, she chose to come to the US for college. She played tennis for the Queens University Women’s Tennis Team from 2018 -2021. Among her many accomplishments are…
2018 South Atlantic Conference Freshman of the Year
2018 and 2019 All Conference First Team Singles
2018 and 2019 All Conference Second Team Doubles
ITA Regionals Doubles Winner
Two-time Collegiate Sportsmanship Award Winner
Two Time All American at Queens University
Player of the Year 2020 and 2021
2021 Post graduate volunteer assistant tennis coach at Queens University
We are happy to welcome Yana as a Wheel Serve NC volunteer. Her professional tennis background as well as her interest in sharing her tennis story, struggles and triumphs with other players, and willingness to share her love of the game with Wheel Serve NC athletes makes her a valuable addition to our organization.