Paralyzed triathlete Laurie Allen hits the court for tennis lesson

Laurie Allen, left, practices her tennis swing with coach Mike Carter on Sunday at Jester Club. Pam LeBlanc/Austin American-Statesman

Laurie Allen, left, practices her tennis swing with coach Mike Carter on Sunday at Jester Club. Pam LeBlanc/Austin American-Statesman

Five months after she was paralyzed in a fall, Austin triathlete Laurie Allen took to the court Sunday for a tennis lesson.

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Matt Allen, left, plays ball boy while his wife Laurie perfects her forehand. PAM LeBLANC/Austin American-Statesman

Using strap-on hand grips to help her hold a short-handled racquet, Allen spent about two hours practicing her forehand and backhand under the tutelage of Mike Carter, director of community development for the United States Tennis Association’s Texas branch.

“This is awesome. Who knew tennis was so much fun?” Allen said midway through the session at Jester Club.

Allen and Carter met while training for triathlons a decade ago. Carter has worked with other athletes who use wheelchairs, teaching them to play doubles tennis alongside fully-abled athletes.

“We pretty much try to put a racquet in everyone’s hands, whether they can grip it or not,” he said.

Carter showed up with a bright yellow inflatable tennis ball bigger than a basketball. “We’re going to make sure you hit some tennis balls,” he joked.

Mike Carter, left, poses with Laurie Allen, right, and a giant yellow tennis ball at Jester Club on Sunday. Photo by PAM LeBLANC/Austin American-Statesman

Mike Carter, left, poses with Laurie Allen, right, and a giant yellow tennis ball at Jester Club on Sunday. Photo by PAM LeBLANC/Austin American-Statesman

“All right, we have arrived on the court,” Allen said when she and her husband Matt arrived. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

Allen fell off an icy deck at a friend’s house in February, severely injuring her spine. She has use of her biceps but not her triceps, and can’t use her legs, trunk or most of her fingers. She’s been gaining a little bit of function, though, and heads back to St. David’s Rehabilitation hospital later this summer for a few more weeks of in-patient rehab.

Allen, who celebrated her 45th birthday last week, has been an athlete all her life – a high school swimmer, then a ballet dancer before injuring her Achilles tendon. In recent years she focused on triathlon, completing nine Ironmans, nine half Ironmans and dozens more endurance races.

She returned to work at a software company shortly after the accident, and is now working full-time from home.

Adjusting to her new post-accident life, though, has been challenging, especially for someone used to a life packed with swimming, bicycling and running.

“I’m not progressing as fast as I think I should be,” she said Sunday. “I’m used to that athlete mentality.”

Next on Allen’s agenda comes more in-patient rehabilitation and then, if she can master a few more skills, a license to drive a specially-adapted car.

Laurie Allen, left, and Mike Carter spent Sunday morning playing tennis. PAM LeBLANC/Austin American-Statesman

Laurie Allen, left, and Mike Carter spent Sunday morning playing tennis. PAM LeBLANC/Austin American-Statesman

At the tennis court, the lesson started with Carter sliding a tennis ball attached to a guide wire toward her while she practiced swinging at it. When she mastered that, he began slowly pitching a ball at her. Eventually, they each took a side of the net, and lobbed the ball back and forth. Their goal was to get four hits in a row; they made five.

They stopped periodically so Matt Allen could spray her with water. Like many quadriplegics, she’s mostly lost the ability to sweat, so it’s important to keep her cool.

Before the lesson ended, Laurie Allen made a few serves across the net. She also won praise for her new-found skills.

“I am so excited about your backhand,” Carter told her. “And your swing is awesome.”

“Apparently I play tennis better than I mountain bike,” she said.


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