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Eternal Optimist

Reprinted from SNS July 2011

When life gives you lemons, can you make the proverbial lemonade? Rick Draney has taken the lemons and turned them into a veritable fruit stand.

The March Sports 'n Spokes and PN contained several alarming articles about the current state of in-patient rehabilitation. This prompted me to reach out to a member of wheelchair sports's "old guard" to gain perspective on the changes he has noticed after spending the past 30 years in a chair.

Rick Draney has won acclaim (and gold medals) playing wheelchair tennis and rugby and has an excellent perspective on how attitudes have changed over time. But if I were looking for a muckraking article railing against the injustices of the world, I chose the wrong subject. Draney is an agreeable, soft-spoken man who insists on focusing on the positives of life while humbly crediting others for the incredible successes he has enjoyed on and off the court.

Draney was 19 in 1981, working part-time while attending junior college and considering a career as a veterinarian or working for the forest service. He spent his free time outdoors, playing basketball or riding motorcycles. That April he was traveling down a dirt road in rural Utah when the vehicle he was riding in rolled, leaving him an incomplete quadriplegic (C6-7). Draney was initially in critical condition, but after he stabilized he and his family began to confront their new future.

Rick Draney reclaimed the Quad Open title from defending champion Brian Hanson at the 1994 U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships.

He spent two weeks at a Utah hospital in Provo before being transferred to Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center (Calif.) for four months. In a striking change to today's rehab experience, Draney was encouraged to stay in the hospital for six months but was eager to get home and be with his family.

"I think my family reacted as most do under sudden/unexpected circumstances," says Draney. "First came the relief and gratitude that I would survive. Their thoughts/feelings/emotions turned to the 'typical' worries, concerns, questions, and uncertainties that one might expect. I was fortunate that I had plenty of family support and care to help me through the transition."

What was Draney's worst rehab memory? He remembers that the food was not very good, prompting his mom and the mother of another patient to bring dinner in to them. You know you're dealing with an eternal optimist when that is his worst memory!

Getting "Real"  

"The 'real' rehab began after getting out of the rehab center," Draney says. "It takes much more time than a few months to learn (and re-learn) how to do things that work for you. I am still learning and adjusting, which is probably true for everyone. Life is a constant period of learning and adjusting—you never really have it quite figured out completely."

Draney doesn't remember learning much about sports and recreation during rehab, but he also says he wasn't in the right mindset at the time.

"How could I begin to think about sports again when I couldn't even get a pair of hospital pants on in under 30 minutes?" he asks. "Initially, I only focused on the present and tried to deal with the day-to-day realities of dealing with my 'new' way of life. I didn't (and didn't want to) think about the future, because at first I couldn't imagine what life was going to be like without the sports and recreational outlets that were so much a part of my life."

It took another three years before Draney started exploring his options. He spent that time getting accustomed to his new body and situation. He had to swallow his frustrations and accept the extra time it took to accomplish certain tasks or learn to ask for help:

"The first couple years after my injury weren't all that fun or happy. I was fairly independent minded, so it was frustrating trying to figure everything out."

School became a focal point, and Draney went back to junior college and ended up earning a BA from California State University in business administration. Dan Lachman encouraged him to check out wheelchair tennis in 1984, and his entire world view shifted.

"This really was the turning point—realizing sports and recreation were possible helped me believe that anything was possible, and that it was time to focus on the future and getting back to living life, and not just dealing with it," says Draney.

Through tennis classes at Saddleback College (Calif.), Draney met Mike Watson, Brian Geier, and Ron Hastings, who inspired him to get out there and compete. He approached his tennis career with the same determination evident in every other aspect of his life. His list of tennis achievements is long and detailed: 20 singles and doubles titles at the U.S. and British Opens and gold medals at the 1993 International Stoke Mandeville Games, the 1995 U.S. Olympic Festival, and the 1998 and 2003 World Team Cups.

Draney received the 1999 Wheelchair Sports USA Athlete of the Year award  and was named player of year in 1997  by the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis and in 2001 by the San Diego District Tennis Association.


It is rare for an athlete to excel so highly at a single sport, let alone two, but that is exactly what Draney did. In 1986, some tennis friends introduced him to rugby, and this led him to a new avenue in which to shine. He earned his first gold medal with Team USA at the 1994 World Championships and ultimately won another gold at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney. During that time he and his Sharp Shadow rugby teammates were United Stated Quad Rugby Association (USQRA) national champions for three years running, and Draney was named to the All-Tournament Team each time. Notably, he was voted the 1999 USQRA Player of the Year, one of the highest honors awarded to the group's athletes.

Check out the complete article in the July 2011 issue of S'NS.


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Eternal Optimist


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