If you’ve ever wandered by the tennis courts on a Monday or Friday afternoon and noticed a player with a prosthetic leg, it’s not a trial for the Special Olympics. It’s a unique new tennis program for veterans conceived and run by a pair of Kentlands residents.
Recently Dr. Karl Lee and Mike Demers, both avid tennis players, wondered why no one had as yet created a tennis program for veterans. Yes, there were hockey programs and other activities, but a tennis clinic? None that they were aware of.
They set about contacting Walter Reed Veterans and were ultimately connected to Bryce Doody, a veteran who walked Lee and Demers through the complex application and approval process for certifying the program they had conceived. The Veterans Affairs Administration requires that all such programs be carefully, “vetted,” so to speak. But the initiative has been well worth the red tape, and the logo for the program includes the imprimatur of approval in the lower left-hand corner.
Demers, himself a Vietnam-era vet, and Lee, a certified USPTA tennis pro and dentist with a practice in the Kentlands, volunteer all their time and talents — sometimes together, sometimes individually — on Kentlands tennis courts every Monday and Friday from 1 pm to 3 pm. The clinic is completely free of charge for the vets, who carpool to the clinic, arriving together for their individualized lessons. A couple of the vets attend on a regular basis, William Davis and Stephanie Morris, but others, like Chris McGinnis, may join, and Walter Reed provides roster before each class. When the group grows beyond the two vets actually taking a lesson from Demers and Lee, the other(s) take on the demanding job of “audience.”
Both Demers and Lee try to tailor their lessons to each student’s needs and desires. For example, Davis who served two tours in Kuwait and another in Afghanistan, has never played tennis but did play football, basketball, and baseball. Stephanie has a prosthesis which challenges Karl to consider new ways to improve her backhand as she puts all her weight on the forward foot.
Tennis sessions in this summer heat, scheduled mid-day as they are, involve a lot of water, frequent breaks, and sometimes certain exercises that do not demand as much running.
Lee says he has been coaching tennis all over for 12 years, including at resorts in Mexico and Jamaica. His son, Bear (see Congratulations High School Graduates 2017!) is also his student and will play for Whitman College in Washington state beginning this fall.
From 1970-1974 Demers was assigned to the Air Force base in Abilene, Texas. From there he flew to Guam to build facilities for pilots flying missions to Hanoi. Demers has dedicated as much time to hockey as Lee has to tennis. Demers played ice hockey in his home town of Montreal and continues to play for a local team known as the Geri-Hatricks, with players ranging in age from 50 to 93.
As a veteran himself, Demers feels a ‘kindred spirit’ with people in the military, particularly vets. That shared experience combined with his love of sports make him a great coach for these Wounded Warriors players. Though he recognizes the challenges of meeting each person’s needs, Demers is gratified by watching their progress each week.
So what motivates the commitment to this Wounded Warrior clinic for Lee? Coaching the vets is therapeutic for him, as well as for the vets, Lee explains, in that tennis provides solace no matter what else may be going on the world. This philosophy is no doubt conveyed to the players, spoken or not, and likely to all of Lee’s students. We all need something that fully and completely occupies our attention, no matter what else is going on with us and around us; something that is so stimulating, so absorbing, so important to us, that all else fades to background while we are participating, whether it’s playing tennis, dancing, doing the crossword puzzle or learning a foreign language.
These veterans have served our country, and we cannot imagine their post-war stresses. But we can appreciate what they did for us and those who care enough to give back.