Bryan Barten will be the first to tell you he’s an athlete. And actually, he is a top athlete. In September, he will represent the United States at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Barten, 42, a Hart, Mich., native who now lives in Tucson, Ariz., is one of the best wheelchair tennis players in the world, but he doesn’t remember holding a racket before being injured in an April 1995 car crash. He was a passenger in a vehicle that crashed, injuring his spinal cord.
Following the accident, Barten spent two weeks in intensive care before going to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. Entering very weak, Barten spent four months working with therapists to regain strength, both physically and mentally.
“It takes a lot of people behind you, in every area,” Barten said of his recovery. “I want to thank them – they did so much for me.”
By August, Barten was ready to return to Michigan State University, where he was a student. He used to pass the time playing sports, so he tried a few adaptive sports, including tennis.
“I never really played tennis, so that’s what made it so fun,” he said. “It made a huge difference for me, because I could identify myself as an athlete. I see myself as an athlete.”
With this newfound love, Barten decided to change his path and focus on collegiate-level tennis, transferring to the University of Arizona. “That’s where I played a lot, so much that I got really good at it.”
So good, in fact, that by 1999 Barten was playing on tour and now is preparing to compete in his second Paralympic Games. Barten said his experience at the 2012 Paralympics in London was unbelievable, and he can’t wait to relive it.
“It’s just amazing to be able to represent your country,” he said.
Before he heads for Brazil, Barten has a few more tournaments on his schedule, including one in his native Michigan. He will compete in the Midwest Wheelchair Tennis Championships July 8-10 in Grand Rapids, a tournament hosted by Mary Free Bed’s Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports Program. Barten said he always gets excited about local tournaments, because his biggest fans are there.
“I get to come home and see my friends and family,” he said.
Even when Barten isn’t playing tennis himself, he’s never far from the sport. He coaches the wheelchair tennis and rugby teams at the University of Arizona as part of its Adaptive Athletic Program, the same program that helped him hone his skills.
“It’s a great program for anybody like myself who wanted to finish school and still be athletic,” he said.
During the next month, Barten will start intensive training for Rio with only one thing on his mind: “Some new hardware, that’d be awesome.”