Wheelchair Athlete Keeps His Eyes on the Prize

By on 07/26/2018

Adil Boutahli holds out his phone to show a grainy video of himself as a youth, running and diving for a soccer ball in a goalkeeper training drill. In his native Morocco, Boutahli played soccer professionally and the game opened extraordinary doors to him, feeding both his love of sports and his desire to see the world.

His masterful goalkeeping took him all over Africa and Europe. In 2009, it took him to New Jersey where he was goalie for the NJ Rangers, an American soccer club in the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League.

But his soccer career—and the life he once knew—ended one January night in 2014. The 28-year-old business management and information systems graduate of Camden County College was working the graveyard shift alone at a 7-Eleven in Pennsauken when three men came in around midnight and demanded money and cartons of cigarettes.

Boutahli tried to open the register, which has an automatic system that keeps it locked for several minutes after money is transferred to the store’s safe. When he couldn’t open it fast enough, one of the robbers struck him on the back of the head with a pistol. Boutahli collapsed. Feeling dizzy, he rose and opened the register, but couldn’t keep his balance and lurched forward.

Possibly thinking Boutahli was trying to hit the alarm button or grab a weapon, one of the robbers fired a dozen shots with a .40-caliber pistol, he says. Four of those bullets hit Boutahli’s body, striking him in both arms and twice in the abdomen, causing spinal injuries. A customer found him minutes later and called police. (The robbers subsequently were apprehended and have pleaded guilty.)

Boutahli was rushed to Cooper Hospital in critical condition and was in a coma for three weeks. He spent several weeks at Cooper before he was transferred to MossRehab in Elkins Park, Pa. That’s where he learned that his legs were paralyzed.

Facing that dramatic change was crushing for this lifelong athlete, a tall, strapping man with broad shoulders whose arms, though marked by surgery scars that run nearly from elbow to shoulder, are as muscular and strong as a body builder’s. Boutahli has undergone multiple surgeries over the past four years, including one this year for an abscess that developed where a bullet entered him. He has chronic back, shoulder and arm pain. He still has nightmares. He’s also struggled emotionally with the new reality of a life with limited mobility.

“Even today I am not 100 percent,” he confesses. “Inside, I am sad and upset. I still like to watch soccer, but inside I feel like it hurts me a lot.”

“I’m athletic,” he says. “I play sports a lot. As an athlete, playing sports, my mind can be positive, strong. But not playing sports can cause big problems when you face the challenges of life.

“Even today I am not 100 percent,” he confesses. “Inside, I am sad and upset. I still like to watch soccer, but inside I feel like it hurts me a lot.” Watching the video of himself playing long ago, his sadness and regret become palpable. “I know that if I didn’t have an injury, I would be playing at a professional level,” he says.

He’s found solace in friends and family “who have encouraged me to go on with life,” he says. His parents visit frequently from Morocco; a cousin lives only 25 minutes away. He has no shortage of friends, including 6,000 virtual friends who follow him on Facebook.

But make no mistake. They “friended” him not just because he was a crime victim whose story spread internationally, but because since his injury, Boutahli is a quickly rising star in the world of wheelchair sports.

The man who was once a talented athlete remains one, just in a different sport. In 2015, a therapist at MossRehab (“Moss has changed my life a lot,” he says) told him about a wheelchair sports program in Philadelphia, offering everything from basketball and tennis to racing and rugby.

Boutahli tried wheelchair basketball but didn’t like it, so he switched to tennis. It was a match.

“When I first met Adil it was obvious he was going to be good,” says Carol MacLennan, a professional tennis coach for over 20 years who coaches the competitive wheelchair tennis team at Cherry Hill Health & Racquet Club. Although he’d never played tennis, Boutahli was strong and had an athlete’s instincts, not to mention an athlete’s competitiveness.

“He practiced a lot,” says MacLennan. “He got very interested in tennis and he’ll go to any tournament he can go to—he loves to travel—and it’s all paying off very well. He’s feeling success. He’s playing well and, though he isn’t winning all the time, he has been winning.”

Physical therapist Bryan Webster, MPT, first got to know Boutahli when he arrived at MossRehab. At that point, he recalls, Boutahli needed help getting out of his bed and into a chair. He was weak. But once therapy began in earnest, his winning attitude was already apparent.

“Adil was great, always upbeat,” recalls Webster. “He was a really, really cooperative guy. He was always extremely well liked by the staff because he was just so easy to get along with.”

Boutahli, Webster says, made great progress—perhaps because of the competitive mindset that continues to characterize him on the tennis court. Webster’s not completely surprised.

“This whole tennis thing,” Webster marvels, “is so hard to do at the wheelchair level. But he’s strong, a physically strong guy. He also has a team of really good people working with him, from all his friends and family to a lot of the caregivers, but that’s part of him, too—his personality. He draws people in.”

 “All my life is under stress all the time. Tennis makes me less stressed in my life. Tennis is my life.”

At the national and international level, competitive wheelchair tennis is governed by the United States Tennis Association and the International Tennis Federation (ITF)—governing bodies for the sport of tennis. When Roger Federer and Serena Williams are competing at the US Open, Wimbledon, or for the Davis Cup, there are wheelchair players in the same locker rooms who are competing at the same elite level. The only difference in the game rules is that wheelchair players get two bounces of the ball before returning it. That’s to accommodate the frantic spinning they need to do with specially designed tennis wheelchairs to pivot after hitting the ball. “This is not a slow game,” says MacLennan.

While not quite there yet, Boutahli zoomed from beginner (C singles level) to A level and became nationally ranked (12th in the UNIQLO wheelchair tennis rankings, UNIQLO being a Japanese casual wear designer, manufacturer and retailer and ITF sponsor) in less than three years. “Players often stay in the same level because it’s all they can physically do, but that’s not true for Adil,” says MacLennan. “He made it work so he could move up.” In 2017, Boutahli was adaptive player of the year, C division, and played in the US Open in St. Louis two years in a row. Boutahli was also USTA Middle States Adaptive Player of the Year.

In part, he credits MossRehab, where he still undergoes therapy twice a week, but his success is also due to his laser-like focus on the prize: He’d like to compete one day in the Olympics. He takes on every tournament he can afford in the United States and Canada, which keeps him in training all the time and allows him to accumulate ranking points.

The game of tennis gave him a new way to “see the world” and new friends who see the world, like him, from a seat. “With other people in a wheelchair, we are the same,” he says. Among those new friends are his teammates, Michael Sullivan and Felix Suero. “Felix and Michael, they gave me a lot of skills, how to move, how to play, they help me a lot,” says Boutahli.

Tennis is also healing an invisible wound, the kind that scars over more slowly than physical injury. On that one night in 2014, Adil Boutahli’s life changed dramatically. Today, he says, “All my life is under stress all the time. Tennis makes me less stressed in my life. Tennis is my life.”

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