Before his first Paralympics, Wichitan Nick Taylor told himself it would be his last. Why or how he came to the conclusion, he can’t remember.
“You’ve made your Olympics,” he remembers thinking in 2004 as he prepared for the games in Athens. “Whatever happens, you’re done.”
Not even close, as Taylor himself realized before the opening ceremony.
“No way you’re quitting,” he told himself. “And if you did now, you’d just be a moron.”
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Eight years later, Taylor, 32, is in London preparing for his third Paralympics as a two-time doubles gold medalist in the quad division of wheelchair tennis. He and partner David Wagner are again favorites to medal, although the presence of teams from England and Israel — the usual top challengers — means the battle for gold should be tightly contested. Taylor plays singles on Sunday and opens doubles play on Monday. He enters the Paralympics ranked No. 4 in doubles and No. 6 in singles in the world.
“I could tell you the three teams that are going to medal,” Taylor said. “But any of us could come home with any color. Every tournament we go to, it goes back and forth as to who is going to win that day.”
Singles does not play to his strengths. In doubles, Taylor and Wagner are dominant. Taylor was born with arthrogryposis, a congenital disease that contracts and restricts muscular development. He uses a power chair — sometimes going through a set of tires in two weeks — and holds the racket under his palm, fastened to his wrist by a cord.
Wagner, from Oregon, was disabled in a swimming accident. He is the world’s top-ranked player in singles and No. 2 in doubles.
“You can cover for each other,” Taylor said. “In singles, there’s just nothing you can do.”
Dan James, the U.S. Tennis Association head wheelchair coach, credits the duo’s gameplan. Taylor sets up the opponent with his shot and Wagner finishes off points.
“They put Nick at the baseline and use his ability to hit high balls with spin,” James said. “David would go to the net to pick off easy shots that opponents lob back. They never allow the opponent to get into an offensive position to strike the ball. They’re always out of position.”
Winning, however, is growing more difficult for Taylor as wheelchair tennis changes. He said opponents in the quad division are becoming stronger and more versatile. Wheelchair tennis divides its competitions into men’s, women’s and quad.
“I’ve always had a much higher level of disability than my competitors,” Taylor said. “There’s definitely people there with more function than there ever were before. They’re also very good players. That makes it that much harder.”
Taylor’s specialty is hitting what he describes as a high heavy topspin ball that keeps opponents from returning with authority. His tougher opponents can hit Taylor’s favorite shot, and return it with some zip.
“With most of the people I play, that high heavy topspin ball is even more effective, because once their arms get above their heads, they have balance issues,” he said. “So I’m basically picking on their disability, just like they pick on that I can’t hit a backhand. These guys have a lot more trunk function and upper-body function that allows them they can reach up above their head and they have the same balance.”
Taylor excels because of his smarts.
“The mental game for Nick is absolutely a strength,” James said. “I’ve never met a guy who loves competition more than Nick.”
The scouting reports for London are limited to the teams from England and Israel. Any strategy that works against them will work against lesser opponents. Before leaving for London, Taylor sometimes put in more than four hours of serving practice, aiming for targets that will put his opponents at a disadvantage.
“A slow day for serving is over two hours,” Taylor said. “It’s very, very specific training for what I need to do.”