Overlooked No More: Randy Snow, Paralympic Champion of Wheelchair Tennis

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Randy Snow was 16 when the accident happened.

It was July 1975, and he was toiling away at his summer job on a farm in Paris, Texas, when a 1,000-pound bale of hay that he was loading onto a tractor fell from its prongs, crushing him in the tractor’s steering compartment. The impact severed his spine, and despite months of rehab, he would never walk again.

But it did not stop him from becoming a world champion athlete. He became the first Paralympian in history to win medals in three different sports — track, basketball and, most notably, tennis.

By the time he retired from competitive wheelchair sports in 2000, Snow had won 10 U.S. Open tennis singles titles and six in doubles play. In the 1990-91 season alone, he won 68 consecutive matches and 15 straight tournaments, becoming the first International Tennis Federation Wheelchair World Champion. He earned gold medals in singles and doubles at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona, and in 2004 he became the first Paralympic athlete inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame.

In 2012, he was inducted posthumously into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. He had died of a heart attack on Nov. 19, 2009, in El Salvador, where he had been giving a tennis clinic. He was 50.

Snow became a leader in developing wheelchair tennis, which had only a handful of tournaments when he began playing. It is now played in more than 100 countries and at all four major championships — Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens.

“Dreams make everyday life tolerable,” Snow, who became an author and motivational speaker, wrote in an essay in 2000. “Without dreams, life would be mediocre. Initially my spinal cord injury dashed any hope of achieving those dreams. But sometimes re-dreaming is necessary. As I reflect on the 25 years after that hot July day, I now know that my childhood dreams were realized. Not only did I win the U.S. Open, I won it 10 times. I just happened to win it in a wheelchair.”

Thomas Randall Snow was born on May 24, 1959, in Austin, Texas, the oldest of four children of Alison Lee McElhone, a kindergarten teacher, and Thomas Snow, a real estate attorney who had played baseball at the University of Texas. The family later moved to Terrell, east of Dallas.

Randy was an ardent athlete, excelling in football, baseball, basketball and tennis. Though his parents divorced when he was 12, they lived less than a mile apart and each built a backyard tennis court to encourage family participation in the sport.

“It seemed like he always had a ball in his hand,” his father said in a phone interview. “Studies were not his thing. He was most interested in sports.”

Randy was on the football team at Terrell High School when he suffered the spinal injury. After spending months in a Dallas hospital and then at a rehabilitation facility in Denver, he was on his way home when he asked his family if he could stop by the school, where a pep rally for his former team was taking place. As the students and staff members rose in ovation, Snow spun his wheelchair and bellowed, “I’m baaaack!” The crowd roared its approval.

“That was Randy,” his sister Jenny Sperry said in a phone interview. “I’m still here, I’m still showy, and I still have my spunk.”

After graduating from high school in 1977, Snow enrolled at the University of Texas, Austin, where he helped start a wheelchair basketball team. He also began a lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol, a battle that would take him in and out of rehab for the next 25 years, his father said.

Struggling academically at Austin, Snow transferred to UT-Arlington and earned a bachelor’s degree in business there in 1986. He later received a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Phoenix.

In the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Snow won a silver medal during an exhibition wheelchair race that looped four times around the track of the Los Angeles Coliseum before a crowd of about 60,000.

His father said, “I was screaming, ‘Hurry up!’ even though I knew he couldn’t hear me.”

Snow was in last place, he said, “but then, when Randy was passing everyone on the final lap — just like it was a horse race — the crowd went crazy.”

Snow began playing wheelchair tennis around 1980 after attending a clinic led by Brad Parks, a co-founder of the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis and a former world champion in the sport. The two became fierce rivals on the court.

“He once told me that he put my picture on his bathroom wall because he wanted to beat me so badly,” Parks said of Snow by phone. “That’s how competitive he was.”

They later became partners and secured the gold medal in doubles at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona.

Snow also competed for the United States in the men’s World Team Cup from 1986 to 1995, helping the team win seven championship titles while traveling all over the world in a high performance, lightweight Quickie wheelchair that he had designed with his business partner, the wheelchair athlete Marilyn Hamilton.

In 1996, Hamilton arranged for him to receive the Olympic torch from President Bill Clinton in Washington to start the relay to the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Paralympics.

As an author Snow wrote “Wheelchair Tennis: Myth to Reality” with Dr. Bal Moore, a college coach and close friend and a mentor for 12 years. Published in 1994, it is widely regarded as the gold standard for teaching the sport of wheelchair tennis. Snow also wrote “Pushing Forward: A Memoir of Motivation” (2001) and “Too Far From Home” (2006), whose cover describes it as “A Book About Change, Teamwork, and Being Safe.”

Moore met with Snow regularly for 6 a.m. “visits” — practice sessions in which Snow developed an effective topspin backhand, a harder serve and more potent volleying, most of which his opponents had not yet mastered.

“Randy was really strong, and he had this big-barreled chest which he used to house the heart of a lion,” said David Kiley, a friend and frequent opponent.

In his later years Snow taught beginners at camps he ran worldwide, imploring them, Parks said, to cheer, “Wheelchair tennis: I love it, I love it, I love it!”

“I’ve never known anyone who could captivate like Randy,” Paul Walker, a professional wheelchair tennis player, wrote in an email. “He was a magician with people young and old.”

Three months after his death in El Salvador, his friend and fellow tennis player Bill Hammett returned there to spread some of Snow’s ashes in the Pacific Ocean, not far from a public court that was renamed in Snow’s honor. Hammett dipped his toes in the chilly water, then slipped on a stone under the surface. As he fell, he held a fruit jar that contained Snow’s ashes high above his head to protect them.

“Everyone who was watching from the beach thought I was crying,” Hammett said by phone. “But I was just laying there laughing. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Randy, I know you’re laughing your ass off right now.’”

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