ANTOFAGASTA, Chile — Watching the students from the Wheelchair Tennis School practice their sport, you quickly get a sense of how good they are. After chasing down a serve on the chalky orange tennis courts of the Autoclub here in Chile’s port city of Antofagasta, one student’s wheelchair slides sideways and simultaneously turns 90 degrees as he parries the ball across the court to his instructor.
The student’s lateral movements are quick by any standard, and all the more impressive given the hand-eye coordination required to track the ball, stop quickly, then strike the ball with the ferocity and force of a professional tennis player. The student’s name is Alexander Cataldo. He is 17 years old and ranked 41st in the world in Boys Singles for Wheelchair Tennis by the International Tennis Federation.
"The school has taught me to be more mature and has given me the opportunity to travel and learn about new people," says Cataldo, who began playing wheelchair tennis only two years ago. "It has also given me the opportunity to represent Chile at a world championship, and now I’m ranked number one nationally in the junior category."
"The program improves the students’ self-esteem considerably; they project themselves positively through sport and it changes their lives, their way of carrying themselves."
The Wheelchair Tennis School was started eight years ago as a youth rehabilitation program by Jorge Morales, an internationally-certified tennis instructor. The rehabilitation aims to strengthen the students’ upper bodies and build their self-esteem through wheelchair tennis. The school’s 32 students range in age from six to 20, but the school has no age limits.
The school now boasts two world-class wheelchair tennis players: Brayan Tapia, who is ranked 31st, and Cataldo. In addition, 12 of the school’s 32 students are competing in national and international competitions. Morales, the school’s director, says he is proud to be training such accomplished pupils, but he’s even prouder about how the program helps his students overcome their physical challenges.
"The program improves the students’ self-esteem considerably; they project themselves positively through sport and it changes their lives, their way of carrying themselves," Morales says. "Children that would show up in a walker end up walking, and children that show up in wheelchairs see that they can do many of the things that people without wheelchairs can do."
The school is the result of a partnership between Barrick’s Zaldívar copper mine, the not-for-profit organization, Fundación Teletón, and the Autoclub, and it bears all three sponsors’ names: The Teletón, Autoclub and Barrick Wheelchair Tennis School. Morales recalls how, before the school existed, a young child arrived at the club in a wheelchair wanting to learn how to play tennis. Morales, who is also the Autoclub’s lead tennis instructor, found it difficult to teach the child to play because the movements were different than traditional tennis. Morales inquired around Antofagasta to see which organizations could help provide training, equipment and support. One of the people he approached was Jorge Díaz, who's the Sustainability Manager at Zaldívar.
"We chose to support the program because it is completely free for the youth that choose to join," Díaz says. "The biggest motivation for maintaining this school is that each year more young children join to learn wheelchair tennis, and they overcome their disabilities and demonstrate their talents in this wonderful sport."
After raising the funds to start the school, Morales — who is no slouch at tennis, having been ranked number five in Chile in his prime — learned how to teach wheelchair tennis through the United States Tennis Association and the International Tennis Federation.
Barrick’s ongoing support for the school helps pay for maintenance costs, rackets and wheelchairs specially-designed for wheelchair tennis. When the school began operating, it had only six specialized wheelchairs. Today it has 40.
Morales regularly registers his students for tournaments that require them to travel around the world, competing in places such as Turkey and Holland, and he won’t stop there. Late last year, the school and its partners helped to organize the Uniqlo Wheelchair Tennis Tour: Antofagasta Open 2014, which fielded competitors from across Latin America.
"I was happy to help organize this event because I could observe the advances that the athletes have made," Morales says. "Now, the vision for this school is to enter our students in more competitions so that they can continue to improve their international rankings."
Look out for Alexander Cataldo in our video about the bronze medals for the TORONTO 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games: