‘The smiles bring me back’
Each time Anthony Lara looks at one of his tennis players, he sees a reflection of himself.
The 44-year-old Chino native is a U.S. Paralympic representative and motivational speaker who works to help promote the advancement of the disabled.
“I’ve been involved in wheelchair tennis all my life,” Lara told the News-Press Wednesday afternoon after teaching a group of students at the Junior Wheelchair Sports Camp at UCSB. “Being born with spina bifida – it’s the smiles that bring me back.
“Each time I see a camper smile it’s like a reflection of seeing my own self,” he said. “And when I look to the side and see some parents, and see the eyes of the parents – I see glimpses of my own mom and dad.”
Often times, the campers are in search for reassurance and hope. Other times, Lara said, they are simply looking for a smile.
“For me, that’s a personal note because that’s what brings me back,” he said. “It’s almost like what can keep me from coming back year after year?”
Lara teaches a wide variety of students. He spends the summer months attending camps throughout California for tennis players who suffer from physical disabilities. Last week he was in his hometown of Chico and next week he will be in San Diego.
“This is not my first rodeo,” he said, adding that he has helped out at the camp at UCSB for the past six years. “I’m a full-time teaching pro. I teach able-body kids and high school tennis.
“This is my office,” he said, sitting in his wheelchair courtside.
He said he tries to treat each of his students the same. Some need to be coached hard, or as Lara puts it “you gotta put the knuckle to the wheel so to speak.” No matter what, he tries to keep the kids engaged.
“They’re all my kids,” he explained. “On my court, I get to give that little extra reality. It’s just the reality that I can use the power of sport to basically promote living a healthy and productive lifestyle. Not everybody is going to leave the court being a tennis superstar, but they can be a superstar in their own heart.”
Lara is a former member of the USTA High Performance national team and has traveled to compete as an alternate for the U.S. team in the Paralympic Games in Beijing, China, in 2008. In 2013, he went to Turkey to compete in the 2013 BNP Paribas World Team Cup, according to the USTA – which honored Lara in 2016 with the Brad Parks Award for his outstanding contribution in helping tennis grow at the local level.
Lara is a favorite of many of the campgoers and organizers. His peers are taken aback by his positive demeanor and adrenaline-fueled teaching methods.
“When he came on to teach tennis here, he changed it,” said Rene Van Hoorn, a recreational therapist at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital, who puts on the annual camp. “He knows how to teach anyone at any level.”
Lara is 44 – “But I look like I’m a cool 29,” he said with a laugh.
He is also the founder of 1MorePush – a movement aimed at bridging communities and adaptive youth one push and one stroke at a time. The group’s motto is “Is it in you?”
“I feel like everybody has one more push to give,” he explained. “These kids, they give me that one last push so I can give them one more push… whether it’s on or off the court.”