Tennis gives Burwell a needed distraction

Kriss Burwell returns a shot in a men’s 3.5 doubles match during the Taco Bell Tennis Tournament at the Elliott Tennis Center Saturday afternoon.

Kriss Burwell and Paul Poudrier got on a roll in the second set of their consolation doubles match.

Rolling is what Burwell is all about.

The 59-year-old from Grand Junction whipped a strong forehand from his wheelchair and the return came sizzling back. Burwell then snapped a return winner for the point.

Burwell was the only competitor in a wheelchair at this year’s Taco Bell Western Slope Open.

Competitor is the appropriate definition.

Even though the wheelchair division was dropped from the tournament a while back, Burwell wasn’t about to miss out on the chance to compete.

That’s just not how he rolls. He wants to compete.

He and Poudrier competed well in the 3.5 doubles category, winning one match, then losing in the consolation round 6-0, 7-5.

Burwell bluntly says tennis was a bit of a lifesaver for him. He needed a distraction, he needed to keep busy.

Back in 1978, three years after he went to work in the natural gas fields of Utah, Burwell was electrocuted when he was part of a crew moving a drill rig. His life changed forever when that powerful jolt of electricity ripped through his body. He lost his right leg from the knee down and his left leg was also damaged.

On Saturday, he tugged off his prosthetic and propped it up against a pole and rolled unto the court. He was just another one of the many tennis players. He just happened to be in a wheelchair.

Opponents naturally take advantage of Burwell’s limitations.

“It’s real tough, I don’t have any lateral movement so they get me that way,” he said. “Because of their movement they make me rush my situation. But it’s such great practice for me for my wheelchair tournaments.”

The only racket in Burwell’s life back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were the clatter of a drill rig and the sound of young children.

After his devastating injury, Burwell had to come to terms with his new life and had to it quickly. Understandably, there was a time of depression and self-pity, he admitted. But priorities remained the same even if he was in a wheelchair.

There he was, 27 years old, a husband, a father of two young children, and suddenly a man needing a wheelchair to get around.

“That wasn’t a consideration really,” he said about feeling sorry for himself. “I had two babies to take care of and my wife left me about the same time, so I didn’t have any time to be a whiner.”

His daughters, Kristi and Trinity, were 3 years old and 8 months old at the time.

No whining, just acceptance and taking care of life’s priorities.

For nine years he concentrated on those mandatory tasks of healing and being a dad.

No time for whining, he was just busy living. But there came a time when he needed something else. First came basketball after he met a paraplegic who played the game. Then came tennis.

“It has made all the difference in the world to me, to play tennis,” he says. “It gave me something to focus on besides the poor parts.”

The poor parts of his life — losing a leg — is impossible for most of us to comprehend. The depression, the agony of a life changed by a single moment. Those were the poor parts.

His daughters came first, then came tennis.

“It gave me something to do.”

At that point in his life that was so important.

“I was addicted immediately, I just loved it,” he said.

The one advantage Burwell has is he’s allowed two bounces.

He said it’s nice to have two bounces, but he doesn’t like to use that second bounce very often.

“I don’t take too many second bounces. That second bounce is so unpredictable,” he said.

In Saturday’s match, there were only a few times he needed a second bounce. Hitting crisp ground strokes and using a potent first serve, Burwell was far from a liability.

“It’s real satisfying,” he said. “But it’s satisfying for anybody to win.”

Next month, Burwell will roll into St. Louis for the U.S. Open Wheelchair Nationals.

Back in 1990, Kriss Burwell was in need of a distraction, a fun activity. That’s when he discovered tennis.

After 24 years, he still loves tennis, loves to play and loves to compete.

That’s just how he rolls.


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