Ashley McGeeney enjoys a challenge.

That’s why the Grain Valley High School junior-to-be plays tennis.

Ashley McGeeney enjoys a challenge.
That’s why the Grain Valley High School junior-to-be plays tennis.
She joined other members of the Eagles boys and girls tennis team at the high school Thursday afternoon for coach Randy Draper’s summer camp.
The unflappable youngster was easy to pick out of the crowd of more than 40 players.
Sure, she has a bright smile, an outlook sunnier than a July afternoon in the Mojave and the passion and drive of gritty court veteran.
McGeeney was also the only player on the court in a wheelchair.
“Ashley is my hero, my inspiration,” said Katelyn Barr, the first Grain Valley girls tennis player to qualify for state. “If I was going through what she is going through, I’d be home sitting on my couch filling my face with food.
“I wouldn’t even think of coming out and playing tennis. And you know what’s even more impressive than her playing tennis? I’ll be walking in the hallway during school, and I’ll see Ashley in her wheelchair.
“Then, all of a sudden, she’s way ahead of me and I’m thinking, ‘How did she do that?’ I mean, she’s the most amazing kid I’ve ever been around.”
Michael Draper, the No. 1 singles player for the Grain Valley boys team, agrees.
“I saw her at school, and kind of knew her, and then Ashley joined the tennis team,” said Draper, the son of the Eagles coach. “The first thing I thought was, ‘How can a girl in a wheelchair play tennis?’ Then we started watching her, watching how determined she was and how she was having so much fun.
“And she started inspiring everyone. Do you realize how hard it must be for her to just get from class to class? And here she is, after school, playing tennis. She’s amazing.”
Let’s talk about challenges.
“I’ve had 30 surgeries,” McGeeney said with nonchalance one might use ordering a sandwich at a fast-food joint.
“I had my first surgery the day I was born. My spine was outside of the skin on my back and my brain was real small and swollen. I had to have surgery to repair my spine and I had to have a shunt put in my brain to relieve the pressure.”
Her matter-of-fact story-telling style belies her years. The young lady with spina bifida knows that she was dealt a bad hand, and she’s turning it into a royal flush.
“Ashley was part of our Parks and Recreation tennis program last year when she was a sophomore,” Randy Draper said, wiping the sweat from his brow following a spirited camp session. “You could see, you could almost sense, that the tennis court was the perfect place for Ashley. It was free of obstacles and it gave her a sense of being, a sense of community, a feeling like she was part of a team.
“So I told her, ‘You need to be on the team.’ ”
That comment caught her off guard.
“Do you want to know why I tried out for the team?” asked McGeeney, as her teammates made sure to tell her goodbye as they walked off the court. “I like a challenge.”
You mean, being confined to a wheelchair isn’t enough of a challenge?
“That’s life,” she said, grinning. “I’m talking about a challenge. Do you know what it’s like to take your racquet out on the court and practice or play against an able-bodied player?
“That’s a challenge.”
And it’s one she has greeted with great gusto and determination.
“People tell me I can’t do something, and I like to prove them wrong,” she said. “I’ve played T-ball and basketball and I used to run track. I still play basketball in a special spina bifida league, but when I play tennis, I’m going against a girl who can use her legs – and I want her to use her legs and arms and everything she else she has.
“I want her to compete against me like she would compete against an able-bodied player. Like I said, I like a challenge.”
Randy Draper will never forget the first time she took the court for a junior varsity match.
“She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Coach, I’m ready!’ Do you know how much courage that took?” asked Draper, his voice cracking with emotion and his eyes misting over. “Oh, my goodness, she was so competitive. We were all so proud of her. When she went out on the court, everything just stopped.
“And you know what? She almost won a game. And soon, we’re going to be saying she almost won a match. And I tell you what, we’re going to be saying she did win a game and she did win a match. She’s going to do it.”
Draper, who has built conference championship boys and girls tennis teams at Grain Valley, sought out help to give McGeeney every opportunity to succeed.
“I talked to a friend who told me about a coach who works with wheelchair-bound tennis players, and I met up with him and he gave some great advice and some great teaching tools,” Draper said.
“We’re looking into getting her one of those athletic wheelchairs, that are easier to move around in. Listen, that kid means so much to me and our program, and she even means a lot to our opponents.
“She has been a gift, a very special gift that we will always treasure.”
When the girls’ camp session is over, Draper gathers his players together and informs them that the next session will meet on the court at 8 a.m.
The only one sporting a grin is – you guessed it – McGeeney.
“I’d be here at 5 a.m.,” she said as she exited the court.
There’s nothing challenging about getting up early to do something you love.
“I never thought I would love anything as much as I love tennis,” she said. “It keeps me active, it gives me something to look forward to and I will always love a challenge.”