Adam Kellerman was a self-described “rowdy little kid with perfect health.” He was active and loved to play sports.
But his world soon turned upside down.
Kellerman experienced a pain in his leg for about a year. By the age of 13, doctors took an X-ray to find the problem.
The results showed a tumor in his right hip; Kellerman was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
He survived extensive chemotherapy and battled recurring infections. Finally, he had his right hip removed and could only walk using a walking stick.
He became depressed, missing parts of three years of school. He had no social life and grew wary of watching other people’s lives go on as he went through surgeries and rehab.
However, two years after his diagnosis, Kellerman found something that got him back into the world: wheelchair tennis.
“It awakened me from such a dark, depressed place, and made me realize that I could be something,” he said. “For a long time I thought that I wasn’t going to do anything with my life because I was too sick and in too much pain. And then wheelchair tennis brought me out of that and made me able to set goals and be motivated to be healthy and have positive thinking. It just changed everything for me.”
Now 22, Kellerman is ranked 20th in the world in singles wheelchair tennis, and 16th in doubles. The Sydney, Australia, native is ranked second in his home country.
Kellerman was in Pittsburgh last week to observe Passover with the Estrin family from Squirrel Hill. He met some of the Estrins when they visited his Chabad in Sydney and he said the family keeps him close to his faith.
“It was a lot of hard work to get my ranking up,” the Jewish athlete said. “I was training on the court four hours a day, and in the gym at least an hour six days a week. That was my training regime. And I’d do ice baths and massage to keep my body in one piece.”
His success in wheelchair tennis did not come overnight. At first, Kellerman couldn’t hit the ball unless it came directly to him or just a few feet away.
“For a long time it was just getting the basics down,” he said. “Getting your serve in and getting a backhand and forehand and getting the ball deep. Moving the chair is probably the hardest part of the game and so I spent a lot of time doing pushing drills and doing sprints.”
Kellerman first saw wheelchair tennis at the Paralympics in Sydney in 2000. At that time he had no idea that he would end up in a wheelchair or playing wheelchair tennis.
After he lost his hip, he looked for some kind of activity to do. At the time, he walked with a cane or crutches and did not know he was eligible to play wheelchair sports.
When he realized that he could, Kellerman went to watch a group of people playing wheelchair basketball, but the game didn’t interest him.
Discouraged, he was about to leave when he heard that the next week there was a tryout for wheelchair tennis. Kellerman returned the next week and began playing.
Through practice, Kellerman progressed and started to rise in the rankings. He traveled around the world to play in tournaments. At one event, he met a woman who played wheelchair tennis for the University of Arizona. He decided to apply to the school and was accepted. He stayed for three semesters.
“When I went there it was probably the best year and a half of my life,” Kellerman said. “Being in college in the U.S. was great but also being able to play wheelchair tennis with a team was incredible.”
He decided to put his studies on hold to train for the 2012 Paralympics in London. He worked extensively to move up in the rankings and made the Australian national team.
“That was definitely the biggest accomplishment of my career,” Kellerman said. “In the beginning of the year, my ranking was 61 and I was outside of the qualifying range for London, so I had quite a lot of work to do to get into the Paralympics. By the time the [Games] came around I was ranked 23, so I did a lot of hard work last year to get my ranking up. In the Paralympics itself, I made the third round and played the best tennis of my life.”
Aside from playing wheelchair tennis, Kellerman has taken up motivational speaking. He talks to groups from schools and companies on topics ranging from setting goals, to overcoming challenges, to nutrition and fitness.
“I feel like I’ve got a really strong message to share with people,” he said, that they can overcome whatever setbacks they have and still make something of their life if they put their mind to it.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.)