Handcycling did not interest Casey Ratzlaff on that hot July day in 2011. Neither did bocce ball.
“Nothing was exciting to him,” said Tammy Ratzlaff, Casey’s mother.
Casey Ratzlaff wanted to join the rest of the family fishing for catfish and crappie at Marion Reservoir. Then, Nick Taylor spoke up, just before Ratzlaff departed a wheelchair sports introductory session in Maize without finding a sport that grabbed his attention.
Taylor, Wichita State’s men’s tennis director of operations and a three-time gold medalist in the Paralympics Games, remembers that day in 2011 well. He is used to scouting talent for people interested in wheelchair sports. That day didn’t seem promising until he noticed Ratzlaff, who was born with spina bifida.
“He went out on a court, and I really wasn’t paying that much attention,’” Taylor said. “I saw him hit a couple balls and I took a look at his build. Something clicked in my brain that there was more potential there.”
He put aside his normal cautious tone and told Tammy Ratzlaff he could envision her son playing on Team USA and traveling around the world within two years. He sent Casey, who used a walker or crutches most of the time, home with a wheelchair to use on the courts near his home.
“It was the strength that I saw and the hand-eye coordination,” Taylor said. “It was almost instant – ‘that kid is strong, that kid has got hand-eye coordination. That kid is athletic.’”
Ten years later, Ratzlaff, a Wichita State University senior majoring in sport management, will play in the Tokyo Paralympics Games beginning Friday at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo. Before going to Japan, he spent a week in training at the U.S. Tennis Association National Campus in Orlando, Florida. Ratzlaff is ranked No. 23 in the world and has played in tournaments in Brazil, Turkey and Great Britain, among others. He has even played in the U.S. Open.
Ratzlaff turned that bit of chance 10 years ago into the opportunity of a lifetime this summer.
“It’s what I’ve been working for the past 10 years,” he said. “It’s the moment I’ve been working hard for. My mindset is — I just want to enjoy it deeply, take it all in.”
How it all started
A 20-week sonogram showed Casey’s spina bifida. Soon after, Casey underwent experimental in-utero surgery at Vanderbilt University. The surgery, now widely accepted, reduces life-threatening hydrocephalus and the physical disabilities associated with spina bifida.
“We know he benefitted from that,” Tammy said.
The Ratzlaff are a sports family. Casey tried track and didn't enjoy it as a youngster. He kept searching for his sport until he found wheelchair tennis.
Once he jumped into tennis, Casey’s skills took him around the world. He worked with Taylor and Jeff Clark, the former director at Riverside Tennis Center. At Wichita State, he trained with the Shockers and former assistant Justin DeSanto. DeSanto is now head coach at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Ratzlaff plans to follow him later this semester to train.
“It’s just been an amazing privilege, and he has such a fighting spirit to compete at that high of a level,” Tammy Ratzlaff said. “We didn’t even know there was a Nick Taylor — I think that’s a pretty cool God-thing to be born in a city with a mentor.”
This week, wearing the Team USA uniform again commands all Casey’s attention.
“There’s so much honor that comes with being able to represent your country,” he said. “The Olympics is in its own category, a very unique and huge honor. I know that feeling and I know that pressure. I think I’ll be ready for that.”
The complications of COVID-19 limited his tournament opportunities. His training tried to restore some of that confidence and timing that comes from playing matches. He played in the U.S. Open in September 2020 and then didn’t play again until March 2021. In June, he returned to Europe for three tournaments.
“A lot of being able to perform consistently well in tennis is being match-fit,” he said. “I haven’t been playing a lot of matches. You can practice really well, and you can drill really well, and you can feel really good in practice. You go play matches, and it’s completely different. We’re trying to get that confidence back.”
While the pandemic prohibits fans from attending and may reduce some of the experience, Ratzlaff wants to soak up as much of the atmosphere and culture as possible in his second trip to Tokyo.
“The people are very kind, and the culture is very kind and gracious,” he said. “The city is very clean and modern. It’s a unique part of the world.”