Janel Manns has her sights set firmly on the London Parlympics in 2012. Find out how this amazingly determined woman has overcome personal adversity and turned her life around with the help of her passion, wheelchair tennis.
Hi Janel. Tell us a bit about yourself and your background …
I’m a casual teacher with the North Coast institute of TAFE. I teach in the welfare section – community services, at both Kempsey and Port Macquarie campuses. I have a degree in Law – a Bachelor of Legal and Justice studies, so fundamentally I teach a lot of legal, human rights and social justice subjects.
I was born and bred in Kempsey, but live in Port Macquarie now.
On July 13, 1998, I was hurrying to get to work. My children were primary aged then – a busy family. I ran on the wet bathroom floor, slipped, tripped, flew through the air and went down. Then I did a silly thing, and got back up. I’d actually broken my back, but hadn’t touched the spinal cord. Later in the day, I moved and partially severed my spinal cord.
So, don’t run on wet bathroom floors! Nothing is worth hurrying so much that you put yourself at risk.
I went through a terrible time, as anyone would – but it’s such a paradox now. It wasn’t the end of the world, and now I live such a liberated life – not just because I play my sport and travel, but being a ‘wheelie’ has led to potentials I probably never would have discovered. I wouldn’t have been as motivated to discover these if I’d been able bodied. I have a very, full wonderful life. My favourite saying is “look up, get up and get going!”
When did you first start playing tennis?
That’s a funny story! I retired from wheelchair basket ball – not because I’d had enough of the sport, but because I’d had enough of the training. I picked up a little kid’s tennis racket and just started belting a ball around with some friends.
In 2005, the National Coach, who was in Melbourne with Tennis Australia, was looking for recruits and heard about me and invited me to Melbourne to try out for the women’s squad. So I went, and figured he’d have to realise eventually that I didn’t know what I was doing (laughs)! He told me I was fit, athletic and said I should go learn to play tennis properly. So, it was never planned! I never set off to have a career in tennis.
My coach at the Kendall Tennis Club, Phil Robinson, told me I wasn’t getting any younger (I’m 45 this year, and a grandmother), but because I was exceptionally fit, he decided to fast track me.
I’m fit, happy and healthy, and I want to be the first granny to bring back a medal at a high level in wheelchair tennis!
Where does your tennis career stand at the moment? I understand you’re short-listed and are among a few Australians who’ve made the London Paralympic Shadow Squad?
Yes. The Shadow Squad is a group of around 400 athletes who’ve been selected across all the different sports. Of these 400, around 200 – 260 will get selected to attend the Paralympic Games.
It’s been an interesting few years. About 3 years ago, I began to get serious about tennis. With my coach, we decided to aim as high as we could – the Paralympic Games – and see how far we could get. We set small goals – stepping stones.
To get on the Shadow Squad, it was about travelling more, playing more high level tournaments, playing the big guns overseas and stretching myself as much as I could. I hit world number 17 last year, and that made some people sit up and take notice. I had two hurdles: to prove myself against pro tennis players, but also to prove that my age wasn’t a barrier to being an elite athlete.
After I hit world number 17, over the course of time I plummeted back in the rankings, because I didn’t have enough money to pursue more tournaments and maintain my ranking.
To make the Paralympic selection and travel to London, I must be ranked within the top 22 women tennis players in the world by May 21, 2012. I must show I’m competitive and play as many high level tournaments as possible and have a high level training regime.
With this aim of increasing your world ranking, what tournaments are you planning to play this year?
In July I go to Nuremburg in Germany to play in an ITF3 tournament (ITF stands for International Tennis Federation, and the numbers represent the level of the tournament. A number 1 tournament carries more points than a number 2 or 3, for example). Germany will be a good lead in to the British Open, which is a Super Series tournament. This will be huge; everyone from across the globe will be in Britain looking for points to increase their ranking, and the points you receive at a Super Series are huge. From there, I’ll go to Belgium, to compete in an ITF1.
You’ve most recently returned from playing the South American wheelchair tennis circuit. What have been some of the difficulties you’ve faced playing overseas?
The biggest hurdle is actually jet lag. Landing in another country, shaking off that feeling of lethargy and jumping from country to country trying to maintain peak condition mentally and physically is difficult.
The other things are the conditions. Living where I do, I don’t have access to clay courts or hard courts; I only have access to synthetic courts. I have to make immediate, fast adjustments to different surfaces. Pushing the wheelchair around on clay is like you jogging on sand, as opposed to jogging on the pavement.
Fortunately, my coach is fantastic, and when he hits the ball to me he can simulate the type of bounce you’d get off a hard court.
How much will it mean to you to make it to the Paralympics?
It’s funny, because as I said before, I never set out to become a Paralympic tennis player. It’s all still a bit surreal at the moment. I have my feet firmly planted, but on a personal level, I think I will be very emotional if I do reach that level. It will be the pinnacle; I have a free spirit and a young, busy mind, trapped in a broken body. It’s not about ego for me – it’s about conquering the body that won’t cooperate.
What can people do to help you achieve your goals?
I know they’re not very good economic times for many people. I did costings, and the next 12 months of tournments will cost me around $45,000 – and that’s more than I earn in a year.
No-one owes me anything or any support, because I’ve chosen to do this activity myself. But if somebody has got a few dollars to assist me with flights, tournament entry fees – even to give me some balls or some sports clothes, I’d be very happy. If someone would like to help me achieve an unbelievable dream, they’re welcome to come aboard.
I’d also like to thank all the people who’ve helped me on the journey so far: all the people at the Kendall Tennis Club; my coach Phil Robinson, who gives me heart; and TAFE – who have been so supportive and flexible, allowing me to take time off work to attend tournaments and keep my job open for me.
Thanks Janel. Best of luck with making the Paralympic team for 2012 – we’re all barracking for you.
Anyone wanting to help Janel achieve her dream can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview by Jo Atkins.