Garafola's vision helps develop collegiate wheelchair tennis program at UCLA - USTA
Adaptive News

Garafola’s vision helps develop collegiate wheelchair tennis program at UCLA

Having been involved in the world of adaptive and wheelchair sports at UCLA for a decade, Michael Garafola hopes to drive the UCLA Wheelchair Tennis program forward by treating it not just as a sport, but also as a community and a life improvement tool for disabled athletes at UCLA and in Southern California.

“[Wheelchair sports are] a tool to get people back into life, to be back into health and wellness,” he said recently. “In some cases, get them back into the workforce, just kind of get people back into society.”

After getting involved with Wheelchair Basketball as a player ten years ago, Garafola started volunteering and then ended up taking charge of the program, leading him in late 2021 to start the Wheelchair Tennis Program at UCLA. “There are other schools that have competitive programs and there are actually some schools that only have competitive and don’t have recreation programs. So, one of my goals is to have recreational programs and competitive programs.”

As the Wheelchair program manager, Garafola is focused on creating a space at UCLA for players of all levels and competitive inclination, and so far has been successful in building an early community.

The team gathered and started practicing late last year. After holding a couple of practices off campus, they were able to get clearance to play at Los Angeles Tennis Center at UCLA, with their program open to all students as well as interested community members. Garafola has been supported by the UCLA administration and has received two grants from the USTA to help fund the operations of the team.

With a dozen players on the current roster, Garafola is keen to get the word out and find more players who can join their practices and help increase the longevity and competitiveness of the team. “We actually have had two Paralympians come out, (and) there’s a gal that has only been in a Sports chair four times. It’s getting a new person into the sport. It’s helping the people who have played a few times. And by having Paralympians there, we’re getting information and guidance and support from them because there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience in those athletes that they can pass on to the newer athletes, which is incredible.”

Being a Wheelchair athlete himself, Garafola is acutely aware of the challenges of adaptive sports, not only in terms of equipment and being able to cater to the needs of each athlete’s disability. “Getting people in the right equipment and then learning to really play tennis with and around that piece of equipment is a huge challenge.”

Garafola also talked about the external challenges, talking about creating a dialogue and a community that allows disabled athletes to feel comfortable in. “For adaptive athletes or even people just with disabilities, it’s intimidating to go to a gym, to work out with able bodied people.” With these challenges in mind, Garafola has set to work finding players and increasing awareness of UCLA’s adaptive Sports program and has some specific goals in mind to do so.

Garafola hopes to play in more tournaments, and the way to do so is with more players and more resources. “We sent a team to Alabama to the Wilson Invitational,” he adds. “And we’re hoping to go to the National Collegiate Tournament in Orlando in April.” Currently the team is without a coach, with Garafola describing how hard it is to find Tennis players that are willing and able to coach Wheelchair Tennis, in comparison to able bodied Tennis. “What we want to do is start getting people that aren’t necessarily in this world. We also want able body athletes and coaches to get involved in our world too, because it’s not that much different. Once you learn the basics of the chair, the tennis is the same.”

And that message of openness seems to be Garafola’s ethos. He and the UCLA Wheelchair program are looking to open the door to disabled athletes by creating a Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis community in Southern California. When asked of his long term aspirations, Garafola said, “Just to spread the word of adaptive sports in general. It’s important to me, it’s important to our students. It’s important for the other schools. The more we can have other schools start to have programs, the broader community sees the need for this. The more we can ask for funding, the more we can ask for support and the more we can make students feel like true athletes again.”

If you are a prospective Wheelchair Tennis player or coach at or around UCLA, please contact Michael Garafola at mgarafola@recreation.ucla.edu.