A Colorado team's crusade to teach the game

February 10, 2015 05:15 PM
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTAFoundation.com
From the seat of his wheelchair, Akiji Koiwalakai plans days of fun for hundreds of students in Colorado’s Adams County’s School District 50, just northeast of Denver.
His is a challenge in mixing in the right balance of fun and focus between the lines. Most of the kids are from Sunset Ridge Elementary, Mesa Elementary and the Gregory Hill Preschool and are very young – even younger than he was when, at 10 years old, he enjoyed his first tennis lesson at summer camp.
“I discovered a sport that benefited me my whole life because I had a great instructor who took the time to work with me,” said Koiwalakai, now 43. “So I want to pass that on to the kids that I work with. Make the sport fun, make it easy to learn and keep the kids wanting more. That excites me and makes me want to give them my best.”
Eighty percent of the kids that Akiji works with live below the poverty line, according to Pat Kelly, executive director of the NJTL Adams 50. She’s seen Koiwalakai and his assistance dog, Merlin, bring the best out of children born into tough situations – but likely none tougher than his own.
Koiwalakai earned his first tennis tournament title at the age of 11 and kept going with the sport despite spending his childhood in and out of hospitals. He suffered from bad asthma and Osgood-Schlatter disease, a painful malady which brought about severe inflammation in his legs. In spite of these challenges, he stayed with tennis and became a teaching pro as an adult. Away from the court, he also spent years in training to become a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
“He’s a very modest person,” said Kelly. “He’s totally extroverted with the kids but really desires no spotlight for himself.”
“Tennis extended my life and made me physically and emotionally stronger,” said Koiwalakai.
In 2000, Koiwalakai was out walking when he was run over by a truck and dragged underneath the wheels. The accident broke his back in three places, paralyzing him. Moreover, in treating the back fractures, doctors also discovered that he had a brain tumor. The tumor would rob Koiwalakai of his ability to hear. Today he primarily reads lips, though hearing aids through the years have helped.
Through everything, the tennis court remained his lifeline – a path to rehabilitation and to closure. As a wheelchair player, Koiwalakai relearned the game and eventually returned to tournament play, competing against both wheelchair and able-bodied players.
In 2010, at 38, he competed at the US Open USTA Wheelchair Championships in St. Louis, one of the biggest professional tournaments in the world.
“It's the only social outlet that I have, and because of tennis, I have met so many wonderful people,” said Koiwalakai. His work with Kelly and NJTL, alongside Merlin, the black Labrador, continues to provide happiness in his long journey back to normalcy.
According to Koiwalakai, Merlin could be classified as the world’s first “tennis dog.” He carries Koiwalakai’s equipment to and from the court and patiently observes matches. He’ll fetch balls which hop over the fencing around the courts. The NJTL students, for their part, get a rise out of Merlin’s abilities. When many kids are initially shy or don’t want to be part of the class, Merlin inspires them to participate.
“He gets upset if I don’t let him do his work,” said Koiwalakai. “He is learning to play tennis. He has his own junior racquet and he sits with the tennis racquet in his mouth. As I feed balls to him, he watches the ball. When he hits one, he gets very excited. I can talk about Merlin all day if you let me.”
Koiwalakai doesn’t foresee a time when his teaching days will end. He ascribes to the adage that tennis is the sport for a lifetime. And in his own lifetime, things have rarely been dull – sometimes sad, but in many spots joyous. He’s made friends, young and old, human and canine, and learned to look forward to a rewarding future.
“Akiji’s life and love is the lesson for these kids,” said Kelly. “He’s a person who has brought himself up from humble beginnings, only to fall back down and then lift himself up once again.”


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