How National Tennis Champion David Williams Discovered His Tennis Talent & The I-Can Attitude

Editor’s Note: Every great champion has a mountain to climb, and the steeper and the higher the mountain, the more mental and physical strength required to reach the top. David Williams of Atlanta, Georgia, national champion in the A Divisionwheelchair division – of the United States Tennis Association, talks today about the erasing the “I-Can’t” attitude.  Part 4 of a four-part series. 
David Williams is a champion on and off the tennis court.

David Williams is a champion on and off the tennis court.

Question: David, how did you discover that you had a talent for tennis?

Williams: I was 17-years old and playing in a wheelchair basketball tournament. A group of guys came from St. Louis to play against my team. Sheldon Caldwell, the president of the United States Tennis Association, came with the team, and after a basketball game, this group put-on a tennis clinic. At that time, I still didn’t know much about the sport of tennis, but I’d begun to learn how to play from my friend Mark Thompson (see Part 3). The tennis clinic taught us how to hit and run-through tennis drills.

During the drills, Mr. Caldwell introduced himself to my mother. He asked my mother, “Did you know that your son has a lot of talent for the game of tennis?” Mr. Caldwell told my mom, “I want David to come to St. Louis and train for 2 weeks with me and my wife, who is a teaching pro. Then after he’s trained, I want him to come back to see the indoor national championship inSt. Louis.”

Mr. Caldwell gave me a tennis racquet, and I stayed with him and his wife for 2 weeks, while I trained to become a competitive tennis player. My game improved a lot. I was blown away because he’d never met me or my family before. He just offered me this tremendous opportunity, took me into his home and trained me as a tennis player.

On more than one occasion, he drove to my hometown of Springfield,Missouri, to train me. I never will forget when he told me that he was doing all this for me just because he wanted to and that the only thing he asked me to do was to pay it forward (teach others as he’d taught me), whenever the opportunity arose. I gladly accepted that responsibility. I’ve been able to fulfill that obligation through several opportunities.

David hits the court with a friend and fan, John Craig

David hits the court with a friend and fan, John Craig

Question: What did you do after high school?

Williams: I was a teaching tennis pro. I taught tennis professionally, until I was 25-years old. I traveled on tour and had people sponsoring me. I felt very blessed to be at the highest level of tennis. I taught able-bodied, youngsters and adult men and women. I taught in the National Junior Tennis League for under-privileged children and people with mental disabilities. I felt very fortunate that I was able to do all those things and help all those people. I also felt that I was keeping my promise to Mr. Caldwell and paying him back for what he did for me.

After earning my degree in therapeutic recreation from Southern Illinois University, I worked at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where I had the opportunity to work with people of all ages who had been injured. I got to talk to those patients and help train and teach them and their families what to expect after rehab.

I’ve learned that forgetting what it’s like when you first become disabled is easy, when you’ve had a disability for a long time. Sports not only can help to rebuild confidence and self-worth, but it also builds your mind and your perception of the world and helps you remember what’s really important in life. That’s why I went to college and studied therapeutic recreation. Well, that’s one of the reasons. I also had a very-pushy brother who didn’t ask me if I was going to college, but told me I was going to college.

David Williams in action

David Williams in action

Question: David, what made you decide to go to college when you were 25-years-old?

Williams: My story gets really strange and wonderful at this point. I went to college on a basketball scholarship. Let me back-up just a little. My brother is a smart guy. He has a PhD in neuropsychology, and he stayed on me about going to college. He was always saying, “Okay, teaching tennis is great and wonderful, but you need to get a college degree.”

Then one day, I got a call from a man who used to live in St. Louis, who just had taken-over as head coach at Southern Illinois University. He was in charge of the university’s wheelchair basketball program. He asked me if I’d like to go to college without having to pay for it. So, I visited the college.

I really liked it, because it was one of the most-accessible schools in the nation for wheelchair students. There were people going to school in their manual chairs like mine and in power chairs. Going to school there really helped me gain a lot of self-confidence and self-worth. People at that school accepted me.

Question: How did this coach even know you could play basketball, since you’d been coaching and playing tennis since high school?

Williams: Sheldon Caldwell, the president of the United States Tennis Association, introduced me to a camp for young people with disabilities. So, every year I’d volunteer to teach basketball and tennis at this camp. At that time, Scott Mauer was on the board of directors of the St. Louis Society for the Physically Disabled, once known as the St. Louis Society for Crippled Children, which was the organization that ran the camp.

Scott came to the camp and saw me play basketball. Seven-years later, he became the coach for Southern Illinois University’s wheelchair basketball team. Coach Mauer knew that I hadn’t attended college and that I had 4 years of college eligibility left. I was the first person he called to offer a scholarship.

David Williams is congratulated by musician Chris Tomlin

David Williams is congratulated by musician Chris Tomlin

Question: When did you decide to major in recreational therapy?

Williams: I knew before I entered college that I wanted to have some type of vocation that helped people. I guess that’s one of the reasons I like coaching tennis. If I hadn’t contracted the virus that led to me being in a wheelchair, I never would have been interested in recreational therapy as a vocation.

I’d learned that recreational therapy was a major part of the Shepherd Centerin Atlanta,Georgia. I knew that I’d have to get a degree to get the job that I wanted. So, I already had decided what my major would be the first day I arrived on campus.

Question: You were playing and coaching tennis and got a college basketball scholarship. You were good at both sports, so why continue with tennis instead of basketball?

Williams: Two factors helped me make that decision. When I went to work at the Shepherd Center, I played on its wheelchair basketball team for one year. I finally decided that I couldn’t compete at the highest level in both basketball and tennis.

I also realized that basketball was much tougher on my body than tennis. I’d been playing wheelchair basketball in college for 4 years without a break. I thought I’d have more longevity in sports with tennis rather than basketball.

I remembered that with tennis, I could play with able-bodied players, as well as wheelchair players, and that I easily could get together with somebody to play tennis than I could with basketball. I wouldn’t have traded my college basketball career for anything, but with tennis, I can play with and compete against one person.

With basketball, I had to get nine people together besides myself to compete. Finally, at 30-years old, I told my basketball team, “Guys, I’ve realized that I can’t compete at a high level in both basketball and tennis. So, this is the last season I’ll be playing with the team. I plan to devote myself to the game of tennis.”

I also have been able to play tennis and continue to work. I’ve won over 50 titles in tennis, not only in singles but also in doubles. I’ve been very fortunate to play well in the last 3 years. I’ve been the No. 1 tennis player in the nation in the A Division of the U.S. Open and won the U.S. Open Tennis Division A Competition the last 3 years.

Question: What happened 3-years ago that enabled you to become so successful?

Williams: Until that time, I’d never gone past the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. When I look back, I was probably a better player when I was younger. Each year I could have an amazing year playing competitive tennis, but when I got to the U.S. Open, I’d get extremely nervous and let my nerves overcome me.

Three-years ago, I took another step in my maturing. I realized that I loved tennis and winning the U.S. Open was something I really wanted. But I also decided that the world wouldn’t end for me, if I didn’t win the U.S. Open. I also realized that I had an amazing life, an amazing child and a great wife.

I realized that I could control training for the U.S. Open mentally and physically, but there was nothing I could do to determine the outcome, except play my best. I decided 3-years ago before I went to the U.S. Open that I’d play the best I could, and if I did that, then the outcome didn’t matter. This decision took a lot of pressure to win off me. I then went-on to win the last three U.S. Open Tennis Division A Championships.

David's son, Eli, has no idea his dad is a national champion, but he does know that Dad is a hero in his eyes!

David's son, Eli, has no idea his dad is a national champion, but he does know that Dad is a hero in his eyes!

Question: Okay, what’s in the future for you?

David loves working with his friends, Eric Kolar and Chris Malcom, at UroMed.

David loves working with his friends, Eric Kolar and Chris Malcom, at UroMed.

Williams: That’s a great question. I have a 5-year old who just started kindergarten, and my wife and I have been married for 9 years. I want to continue building myself professionally, because I love where I work.

There’s an amazing atmosphere at UroMed, where I work as an outside sales representative, covering the southeastern territory, which includes Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. I’d like to go to the next level professionally, whatever that may be, and I want to continue to play tennis at an extremely-high level for as long as I can.

One of the advantages of playing wheelchair tennis is that, even at 41-years old, this sport’s not nearly as hard on my body as it would be if I was trying to play as an able-bodied player at the same age. The first thing to go on an able-bodied player is their knees.

Because I’m in a wheelchair, I can swing my upper body, which is much-more forgiving when competing against Father Time. Competitors in wheelchair tennis in their 50s are still competing at a high level, which is very encouraging to me.

I plan to try to stay in competition tennis for as long as I can. I want to do the very best I can at tennis and win, but I also want to look at tennis as an insurance policy. Training keeps me in good shape and gives me a goal to reach. That’s what I like about competition. You always can strive to be better, and by striving to be the best tennis player I can be, I stay much healthier than if I’m not competing and playing tennis.

That’s my insurance policy. I’ve always been a competitor and always have enjoyed competing. I started playing basketball when I was 5-years old. I was much like the young guy in the “Hoosiers” movie, who had a basketball in his backyard and shot baskets every day when he got home from school, until I couldn’t see in the darkness. I’ve never liked to lose, but I’m not a sore loser, and if I don’t do everything I can to try to win, I can’t live with myself.

Question: Why would you encourage anyone in a wheelchair to get involved in sports?

David fully believes in the I-Can Attitude!

David fully believes in the I-Can Attitude!

Williams: If you’ve liked or loved sports before your injury, then being involved in wheelchair sports or any other sport is absolutely necessary. Wheelchair sports gave me the awareness that my life wasn’t over after my illness.

When I first realized I would be in a wheelchair, all I could think about was my limitations. However, through sports, I learned that I could rebuild my confidence and build solid relationships. Now when I go to a tennis tournament, I know everyone there, and they know me.

My life was changed forever when I went to Southern Illinois University, because I saw what other people in wheelchairs could do. Through sports I learned all the things I could do, instead of concentrating on all the things I couldn’t do. One of the things that helped me the most was when I learned that I’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, a 24-year-old physical therapist at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta said to me, “David, there are some things that you can’t do. But by the time you do all things that you can do, you won’t have any time to think about the things you can’t do.”

That is the philosophy of wheelchair sports. Wheelchair sports give you the opportunity to learn and discover all the things you can do and see all the things that are possible. Wheelchair sports deliver the I-can attitude and erase the I-can’t attitude.

David Williams’ story has a special place in our heart because David has been part of the UroMed family for more than 10 years. David also volunteers as a peer counselor for UroMed’s non-profit program: Life After Spinal Cord Injury and will be teaching a wheelchair tennis clinic to kids at the WIND event in Columbia, SC on Saturday, October 15, 2011. We hope you’ll join us there!

About the Author: For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at

About UroMed Catheters
Headquartered in Suwanee, GA [a suburb of Atlanta], UroMed is one of the nation’s leading providers of single-use catheters, urological and disposable medical supplies, including intermittent catheters, closed system catheters, condom catheters, pediatric catheters and continence care products. UroMed is nationally accredited for Medicare reimbursement and most state Medicaid plans, and partners with private health insurance providers and health plans to provide patients with single-use catheters, catheter kits and incontinence products. UroMed also has seven staffed regional offices located in Boston, MA; Columbia, SC; Jacksonville, FL; Dallas, TX; Carlsbad, CA; Knoxville, TN; Richmond, VA; and Baton Rouge, LA; enabling next-day delivery after a customer’s initial medical supply order. For more information, please visit or call 1-800-841-1233.

3 Responses to How National Tennis Champion David Williams Discovered His Tennis Talent & The I-Can Attitude

  1. Pingback: Three-Time National Champion David Williams Didn’t Intend to Be a Tennis Player « UroMed Catheter Health Blog

  2. Jill Phipps says:

    Great story! HI, my name is Jill Phipps, with the national office of the United States Professional Tennis Association, and I am trying to reach David Williams (but haven’t been able to find an email address). If someone can pass this on to him, I would sure appreciate it. My email address is, or my phone number is 713-978-7782, ext. 114.Thank you much.

  3. Pingback: Three-Time National Champion David Williams Didn’t Intend to Be a Tennis Player

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