Athlete Profile – Rob Shaw
“I feel like I’m competing not just for myself but for the dozens and dozens of people who are out there supporting me”
Rob Shaw began his relationship with competitive tennis as a coach, for the stand-up game. He coached stand-up tennis for about three years before his injury. After getting injured, Rob made sure to immerse himself in as many sports as possible, no matter how limited he was functionally or how poorly he started out at the sport. “… I tried it to make sure I could definitely say whether I liked it or not – and that way you have a better idea of what you like, what you don’t like and that allows you to sort of form some more immediate goals in terms of what you want to achieve in those sports.”
Rob started playing wheelchair tennis eight years ago, but he didn’t begin to “take it overly seriously” until almost four years in. Now, Rob has been playing competitive wheelchair tennis at the international level with the national team for five years. He describes representing Canada as “always a good feeling knowing that your work and your effort is being rewarded with an invitation like that” and acknowledges that there is more to be done once you’ve made Team Canada, “it’s an honour to make it but it’s even more of an honour to continually make it year after year – the competition gets harder, the pressure gets more intense.” Rob has competed in five straight world team cups, and will be competing again next year in Portugal. The Parapan Am Games in Lima will be his first international multi-sports games and he is “a little nervous for it” but is mostly very excited.
A big change for wheelchair tennis was just implemented at the Parapan Am Games with the introduction of the ‘Quad’ division, the division in which Rob competes. It’s the first Parapan Am Games to offer the division. Rob credits American wheelchair tennis players David Wagner and Bryan Barten as advocates for the division. Rob’s division is very competitive, with other players from the Americas ranked top 12 in the world including David Wagner, Ymanitu Silva, Bryan Barten, and Rob himself. “So obviously the talent level has been there for a while but it’s nice to be recognized and it should be a very exiting first games for us all.” Rob will be joined in Lima and cheered on by his mom, Tennis Canada’s national wheelchair tennis coach Kai Schrameyer, and good friend of his Mitch McIntyre, who will also be competing in the Quad division. He also expects a Canadian contingent to come out and cheer on the Canadian athletes. Rob views the Tokyo 2020Summer Paralympics as his big goal, with the Parapan Am being an important path to qualification. He needs to be top 12 in the world in the Quad division next year in order to qualify for Tokyo 2020. “Qualifying for Parapan Am, don’t get me wrong, was amazing and it’s going to be just a fantastic experience. But we’re looking beyond Lima as well towards Tokyo – that’s our major goal as a team.”
Rob has an interesting approach to what motivates and inspires him as a wheelchair athlete. “I’m not one of those athletes who wakes up and is completely enamoured with his sport, enamoured with the process, I don’t consider myself to have the best job in the world being an athlete. The level that I’m at now, I do see it more as work.” He identified two things as continuing to drive him and his competitive spirit. The first is that he is even able to compete in the first place and has the skill to do so at an extremely high level. Rob acknowledged that he is in a position that a lot of individuals post-injury don’t have the luxury to be in. “They may have functional limitations that restrict them from playing high level sport. They may have financial restraints, lots of other barriers that don’t allow them to sort of achieve and complete those goals.” The second motivating factor for Rob is he really enjoys training. He admits to only recently starting to enjoy competing but has always enjoyed pushing himself in practice and developing all aspects of his game. “I really enjoy that process of being an athlete, having that structured routine, just trying to push your own limits and seeing how far you can take yourself.”
Rob believes the biggest misconception about wheelchair tennis to be the level and quality of the sport. He sees people wondering if wheelchair tennis players are using ‘real’ tennis balls and ‘real’ racquets, asking if the courts are the same size as in stand-up tennis. “I think until you see it you don’t have this idea that people in wheelchairs can play at the same high level. Over the last 30 years, the sport has really evolved to the point where when you’re watching these high-level athletes out there, you really do forget about the chair, you just see tennis.” Being a stand-up tennis player before his injury, Rob appreciates how similar to two sports are. “… that’s what I love most about tennis specifically – just how similar it feels watching, it feels playing as it did before my injury. I really don’t notice that much of a difference anymore.”
Rob made note of the media’s role in how athletes are viewed. He believes the media portrays athletes as “having these amazing, glorified jobs”, most notably “in the able-bodied community where you’re getting paid millions of dollars.” Rob reminded us that there are negative sides to sport, “I am away from my family a lot, I’m away from my friends, I’m away from my work, I live out of a hotel room”, but they are outweighed by the positive aspects of competing, “… a lot of fulfillment, just trying to push myself, trying to better myself, trying to set goals and achieve them.” The camaraderie amongst teammates and opponents and being able to travel the world are also things he loves about being a competitive, high-performance athlete. But the number one thing that Rob enjoys most about sport is the social participation it fosters. “Just the ability to communicate with people, to connect on a level that’s very equal, everybody who plays sport understands sport. It’s a really good equalizer in that sense to bring people from different cultural backgrounds, people from different socio-economic backgrounds together”.
Rob’s path to competing at the international level of wheelchair tennis wasn’t always assured. He doesn’t think he was ready for the commitment when he first started playing. “I got burned out within my first two years, had to take 2 years off, and in hindsight while it was a good experience travelling around those first 2 years, I just wasn’t ready for it. Mentally I just hadn’t coped with my injury yet.” He advises people to make sure that “you’re really okay with the new lifestyle that you’ve found yourself in before you really start throwing yourself right into sport right away.” Rob also preaches patience to those who are new to wheelchair sports, “… I think once you have a disability you have to learn to be patient, the world is not accessible – it’s getting better but mundane, routine things that take people seconds to do could often take us minutes to hours.” A big reason why Rob has been able to have so much success in wheelchair tennis is his support system. He identified his parents and siblings who have “been with me from the lows of the sport and now that I’m doing a lot better, they’re there with the highs”, his friends who “take care of my condo back in Kelowna when I’m away, watering my plants” and his supervisor from work, who allows him to compete full time and has the confidence in him to still get all his work done. Rob also recognized the organizations who have supported him throughout his career, listing Tennis Canada, Own the Podium and ONPARA. He views all these supporters of his as another motivating factor to compete, “I feel like I’m competing not just for myself but for the dozens and dozens of people who are out there supporting me.”