Joel Dembe was born with a benign tumour near his spine. It was removed shortly after his birth, but the 28-year-old was partially paralyzed at a young age and started using a wheelchair at 7. He tried several sports in his youth before picking up a racquet and finding an athletic activity that demanded many skills. At 14, he became a junior player of wheelchair tennis, which was invented in 1976.
Last year, after rising to the top of Canada’s junior rankings, Toronto-based Mr. Dembe left his job at a financial institution to become a full-time athlete. “After working in the corporate world, there’s nothing like the thrill of winning a match,” he says.
Over the past year, Mr. Dembe won three singles’ and two doubles’ titles, represented Canada at the Pan Am Games in Mexico, became the number one wheelchair tennis player in Canada and was named the Canadian Male Wheelchair Athlete of the Year.
In September, he will debut on Eton Manor court hoping to serve up a win for Canada at the Paralympic Games in London.
To withstand the rigours of a tennis tournament and another one after that throughout the season. The whole year is a grind. My body goes through a lot with travel and being on court all the time, so remaining fit enough means having proper endurance and strength to hit the same shot again and again over the course of a year.
I started preparing in November, 2010, when I hired a personal trainer with a three-prong approach to becoming a fit wheelchair tennis player and getting faster on court.
First, the on-court drills include hitting forehands and backhands, and speed drills using pylons to turn the wheelchair really fast.
Second, Steve Ramsbottom, my strength coach, prescribes pulleys. Shoulders are important and my trainer has helped me improve my muscle strength. I do 20 reps twice, trying to mimic the strokes. In tennis, the body overextends when doing a stroke, so muscles try to stop the arm from continuing to go, and this meant I pulled muscles.
We do movement drills: Lying face-down on the ground I trap a medicine ball below my chest and I’m doing Ts with arms to the sides, then Ys with thumbs pointed to the sky and Ws with palms facing the ground.
Last, I cross-train with a hand cycle called an ergometer, three times a week for an hour. You can’t wheel all the time or your body breaks down. I rely on the ergometer in the off-season because it uses different movement patterns from tennis and strengthens other muscles, preventing overuse.
In the morning, I load up on eggs, yogurt, fruit and a protein shake. Lunch is tuna sandwiches, and I stay away from fast food. My aunt taught me the importance of quinoa, which is a grain high in protein, and I eat it for dinner with chicken in a stir-fry with Szechuan sauce or a stew.
Metallica’s The Day that Never Comes or Ride the Lightning.
The financial aspect of eating high-quality organic foods. You’re constantly eating and you have to spend the money. You have to budget for it or end up eating food on the road, which isn’t of the same quality.
Kai Schrameyer has participated in three Paralympic Games as a wheelchair tennis athlete. Now Tennis Canada’s national development coach for wheelchair tennis, he trained with Mr. Dembe in Vancouver early this year.
Taper training in July
“Joel’s got a few tournaments in Asia – the World Team Cup and Korea Open – and possibly the French Open, so he needs to scale back overall training by reducing weight load and frequency so that he avoids the risk of burnout before the Games.”
Take charge of every shot
Mr. Schrameyer says Mr. Dembe cannot expect to win by simply putting the ball in play and hoping his opponents will make mistakes.
“Joel has to play every single shot intensely, aggressively, and put his opponent under pressure immediately. The second Joel decides to float the ball he’ll get killed by the high quality of players. If he cannot dictate the play through his serve and with the return of serve, there’s less chance he’ll be successful. He has to take charge of every shot from the get-go.”
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Special to The Globe and Mail