Jeff Clark: On and Off the Court
Jeff Clark of Winchester, Indiana, and Dennis Oehler, Paralympic Gold Medalist and co-founder of the Amputee Walking School, enjoyed a friendly tennis match at the YMCA in Muncie, Indiana this past winter.
“I made the mistake of telling Jeff that I like to play tennis, not knowing what I was in for”, said Dennis.
Dennis knew that Jeff was an avid tennis player, but had no clue just how strong his passion was for the game, or that he had been playing since his high school days.
“At first, I just played now and then because I enjoyed it. Eventually, I started playing all day long, only taking a break to eat”, said Jeff.
Once he started to tap into his newly discovered talent, Jeff played at the Muncie Tennis Association against people of various levels that challenged him to be better. He carried this passion with him past high school and continued to play in numerous leagues and tournaments while his children grew up. He went on to coach the boy’s and girl’s tennis team at Winchester High School from 1995 to 2009.
However, with any sport, the rigorous physical demands of the game eventually took a toll on his body, and Jeff rolled his ankle and broke a bone in his foot in 2009. He underwent surgery shortly afterwards, including replacing one of his tendons with a cadaver tendon. With little to no improvement after several months, Jeff visited his orthopedic surgeon in Muncie, where he underwent a fusion of his ankle which included implanting three screws in his foot for over a year.
“That was worse than anything”, said Jeff. “After they removed the screws, they discovered that the joints never fused together. After much discussion, I basically had the option of either trying another fusion, make due with what I had, or amputation”.
With options spinning in Jeff’s mind, life handed him another obstacle to climb when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011.
“I could barely walk to my chemotherapy appointments”, said Jeff. After six months of treatments, they finally removed a tumor the size of a grapefruit. I did a lot of praying. I got so much of my self esteem from playing sports, and I wasn’t able to do that now. I just wanted my life back. It was time to make a decision”.
After doing a lot of research on his own, Jeff went back to his orthopedic surgeon to discuss the possibility of an amputation.
“My leg had become a detriment to me”, said Jeff. “My surgeon told me that I had a lot of hoops to jump through first before I made my decision. He directed me in two directions. First, he had me speak with an amputee who also had an elective amputation after a four-wheeler accident, and secondly, he sent me to speak with Bryan King, prosthetist at SRT Prosthetics in Muncie, who told me that I would play tennis again, which was very encouraging to me”.
Jeff elected to have a below-knee amputation in June of 2012. Determined to regain his active lifestyle, Jeff attended the Amputee Walking School where he developed a bond with Dennis Oehler. His determination grew even stronger, and after being fit with his prosthesis, Jeff not only returned to the tennis court, but also lost 40 pounds in the process.
“Jeff is an excellent example of someone who chose not to give up after amputation, but instead set a goal for himself after attending the Walking School”, said Todd Schaffhauser, co-founder of the Amputee Walking School, who also briefly picked up a tennis racket with Jeff and displayed why track and field is really his strong suit.
“God has truly blessed me”, says Jeff. “I have never had any issues with my residual limb or my prosthesis while playing tennis. Now I can move and chase the ball like I used to”.
Jeff is now semi-retired and keeps active with his church’s food pantry and is also a substitute teacher. He currently lives in Winchester, Indiana with his wife Mary of 22 years. They have three children, all of whom were taught to play tennis by their dad, including Justin, who played tennis in college, Gabe, a tennis coach in Wadsworth, Ohio, and Jenna, a high school tennis coach in South Carolina. Jeff and Mary also have five grandchildren: Lily, Clay, Will, Addy and Emery, all of whom he hopes to one day teach the game to as well.
SRT is very proud of Jeff Clark for setting and achieving his goals both on and off the tennis court. Although no official score was kept during the match between Jeff and Dennis, it was the opinion of the crowd that the home team was victorious.
“If your world is cold, make it your business to build fires”, says Jeff. “It’s all about hope, and hope is a good thing”.