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The 'right road' to recovery

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- His movements are fluid on the tennis court. His coach jokingly chides him -- a verbal poke in the ribs to get him moving quicker.

Pat Donaghey says between breaths, "Fight through it. Let's go," as he swoops and bends to deliver his response via the tennis ball.

Donaghey, 51, isn't your average tennis player, though he might say otherwise. He plays the game from a wheelchair, and has for about 20 years.

"People say to me, 'You're amazing,' when they see me on the tennis courts," Donaghey said. "But to me, it's like no big deal. I just do it."

It hasn't been easy for Donaghey, though. The four-time wheelchair tennis grand prix title winner only recently returned from an 11-year hiatus -- the result of a marriage gone bad, followed by a bout of depression.

He moved from New York to Charleston almost two years ago at the insistence of his sisters, who he called "wonderful."

"They said, 'You're not living like that,'" Donaghey said. "I was isolating and not calling anybody and not being myself."

In an effort to get back to his old self, Donaghey joined the Charleston YMCA last February. He began working out every day, finally getting back into shape. When he saw the gym's tennis courts, something stirred inside him.

"[My] competitive spirit just lifted again," Donaghey said.

Since beginning his training, Dongahey has lost nearly 50 pounds and become competitive, winning tournaments since May.

"I got my muscles coming back," Donaghey said, flexing and squeezing his right arm as proof. "I got great coaching. This place has really done wonders for me, getting me back into shape."

This isn't the first time para-athletics have changed Donaghey's life for the better.

Donaghey was born and raised in the Bronx. He was still in New York City at 25, between shifts at a utility company, when he was shot in the chest.

It was 11:14 on Halloween night, Donaghey recalled. "I was robbed for $60 and a gold chain.

"I didn't see the second crackhead," he said. "One crackhead pulled a knife on me and said, 'Give me your money.' I wasn't too worried about it, because I was in the service. I can handle myself pretty well.

"I just felt someone over my back. I just turned around, but he just point down blank shot me."

Donaghey unbuttoned his shirt to show a large scar running down the middle of his chest.

"Hit me here, in the vena cava."

Over that scar now sits a braided gold chain (a gift from his sisters) and a pendant featuring a portrait of Jesus Christ, with diamonds in his thorny crown.

The shooting robbed him of the use of his legs. Donaghey gives credit to his daughter, Michelle, then a toddler, for giving him the motivation to work through his recovery.

"She was like the wind beneath my wings," Donaghey said. "If it wasn't for her, I don't know that my will to excel at sports would have been that strong."

He spent about two years in physical therapy before he was introduced to wheelchair basketball. He excelled at the sport, and after a "hot game" against the nationally-ranked Dallas Wheelchair Mavericks, he was invited to go to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I was on fire," Donaghey said of the game. "I scored close to 30 points against the top team in the country. That was pretty good for a boy coming from the East."

Donaghey went on to tour in Italy with the U.S. Paralympics team, an experience he said was amazing.

"When they play the national anthem and you roll out on the court representing your country, the hairs on your arms stand up," Donaghey said, rubbing his arms and pointing out his goose bumps. "I was really proud, very proud."

After basketball season ended, Donaghey looked to other ways to keep fit and busy. Many of his friends, he said, turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with their paralysis.

"Fellas would go down to the park, drink beer and smoke marijuana," Donaghey said. "I didn't want to do that."

Though he never played tennis on his feet, it took only four years for Donaghey to make a name for himself in wheelchair tennis. He won the U.S. Open twice -- in 1992 and 1993 -- and went on to be a semifinalist in the A division for men's doubles.

Donaghey's athletic prowess isn't something he has kept to himself. Once the director of the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, Donaghey taught adaptive recreation to veterans.

"When you get injured, I would say there's two roads you can go down," Donaghey said. "There's drugs and alcohol, and there's sports and recreation. I try to get a lot of my veterans to go down the right road through sports and recreation."

Donaghey coaches other para-athletes and facilitates sports clinics throughout the area.

"I'm a grandpa," Donaghey said. "How long am I going to be doing this for? I don't want to take it to the grave with me. I want to pass it on."

Repeatedly discussing his blessings -- his sisters, his daughter, his coach -- Donaghey expressed his gratitude for the way things are turning out.

"Life's not that bad, even though I had a couple of bumps in the road," he said.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.molenda@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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