Casey Ratzlaff is a first-time Paralympic hopeful in wheelchair tennis and current student at Wichita State University.
Deja Young is a two-time Paralympic champion in track and a Wichita State alumna.
Nick Taylor is director of operations for WSU Tennis and a multiple-time Paralympic champion and competitor who is planning a return to the Paralympics.
All three have one thing in common besides Wichita State: their Paralympic dreams have been put on hold for the foreseeable future.
“Casey and I had played the first day of a tournament in Georgia. We woke up the next day to a rain delay, and by noon, all tournaments worldwide had been canceled due to COVID-19,” says Nick.
Casey, Deja and Nick wait patiently to compete in the sports they love. In the meantime, they are perfecting their skills and learning to go with the flow.
Casey grew up in a sports-oriented family that influenced his love for athletics. Nick, a mentor to Casey, introduced a 12-year-old Casey to wheelchair tennis at an adaptive sports clinic. After nine years, Casey has become one of the best in his craft.
Casey is coached by Justin Desanto, the assistant coach for Wichita State men’s tennis.
“I’m a two-time junior world champion at the World Team Cup and I am currently sitting at 20th in the world,” Casey said.
Casey spent years competing in matches across the United States. When he wasn’t competing, he spent at least two hours a day on the tennis court and in the weight room. That lifestyle was interrupted when he had to take a two-month-long break due to COVID-19.
“It was a heartbreaking decision that everyone involved with Paralympic and Olympic sports had to come to terms with, but I do believe that it was the right call,” Casey said.
While on break, Casey worked out at home and maintained a positive attitude.
“All this extra time has forced me to slow things down and think more about my practice and development,” Casey said.
Several months ago, Casey and Nick resumed practice with a renewed focus and appreciation for the little things. Last week Casey returned to action in the U.S. Open, which was his first grand slam tournament of his career.
“My advice to anyone who wants to compete in the Paralympics is to always believe that you can accomplish your dreams,” Casey said.
Nick started playing Paralympic wheelchair tennis when he was a freshman in high school. After 25 years, Nick has earned three gold medals, one silver medal in doubles and a bronze medal in singles. Nick has also won 11 grand slams and 200+ other international titles.
Nick, Casey and Justin typically practice at Sheldon Coleman Tennis Complex. However, due to COVID-19 and the university shutdown, they practiced in public parks.
“The silver lining is that a lot of people have watched us practice and said, ‘Whoa that’s really cool.’ They stand there and watch us train for forever,” Nick said.
Nick encourages anyone with an interest to join, with one reminder: it’s not easy.
“You have to be willing to fail, but not accept failure. If it’s worth getting, you’re going to fail a lot before you ever succeed,” said Nick.
For the past 10 years, Deja has competed in the 100m, 200m and 400m Paralympic Games. She earned 1st in the 100m twice, 1st and 2nd in the 200m and in the 2016 Rio Games she won gold in the 100m and the 200m.
Growing up, Deja had a hard time connecting with people because she felt no one understood her struggles. When she joined the Paralympic movement, she immediately knew that Paralympic track and field was her home and that her fellow athletes her family.
“The Paralympics are the best thing that has ever happened to me,” Deja said.
The cancellation of the Paralympics challenged Deja. At first, she felt lost.
“All of my goals were centered around the Games,” Deja said.
She decided to refocus and find the positives in the situation. She took the time to make herself better mentally and physically. Going through the simple motions helped her fall back in love with the process.
“My time in quarantine was really important,” Deja said.
Deja encourages anyone interested in Paralympic track and field to go for it.
“The only ‘no’ that matters is the one that you tell yourself,” Deja said.