Wheel Chair tennis player David Johnson. Photo: John Gass / Tweed Daily News
Wheel Chair tennis player David Johnson. Photo: John Gass / Tweed Daily News John Gass

Back on centre court

AS a boy in Beaudesert, David Johnson displayed exceptional sporting talent across a range of codes.

By his teens David, who now lives at Banora Point, was playing indoor and outdoor cricket at state level and was an accomplished tennis player and track and field athlete.

That all came to an end one night in May, 1989 when, as a "young and stupid" 19-year-old, he got into a car with a drunk at the wheel.

There was a crash, and David suffered internal injuries so severe he was not expected to live.

He spent the next year in Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane, some of it in an induced coma, and being given kidney dialysis.

He had 40 major operations but, when gangrene set in, the doctors were unable to save the use of his legs, amputating one.

It was a devastating blow to the young athlete but a humble and philosophical attitude helped him to survive the early dark days.

"I knew there were people who were worse off than me. You've got to make do with what life deals you."

As he recuperated, he started cricket umpiring and was soon officiating at state level, but watching others play "tore me up", he says.

He took up basketball, but when wheelchair sport stalwart Kevin Bishop saw him play tennis one day he said, "you're playing the wrong sport' and persuaded him to resume the game seriously.

David was a natural - fast around the court, "smooth and fluent", powerful with the serve - and won the first tourney he entered. By 1992 he was playing at international level.

The Queensland Wheelchair Tennis Open men's perpetual trophy is named after him.

"I used to train 30 hours a week and played 26 tournaments a year all around the world for a 10-year stretch," he said.

In 2000 David reached career-high rankings of No.6 in singles and No.2 in doubles. With fellow Australian David Hall he won doubles silver at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics.

"I made my mark and achieved the highest level I could," David says, so when he married "beautiful Kelly" and started a family, he decided to retire.

That might have been an end to his tennis career but for a chance encounter four years ago when he was enrolling his eldest daughter, Amelia, at Centaur Public School at Banora Point.

Principal Darren Scott mentioned having watched the tennis at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, where he had taken some of the school's pupils, and been "astounded" at the players' skills.

"That was probably me," David told the delighted headmaster.

When Amelia told her dad's story at the school, complete with his medal collection, Darren ramped up the "ribbing" he gave David about becoming more active.

"I dragged him out of retirement and told him the school would sponsor him to play in the Masters Pan Pacific Games in wheelchair tennis on the Gold Coast this month."

David competed, wearing the school's insignia, and came away with two gold medals, one for singles and one for the doubles.

The Centaur students were unable to watch David's matches in the competition, but he was back at the school within days of his success, motivating the students with his story, Darren said, just as he had "motivated millions at the games in 2000".

Despite his injuries, David has fathered four children and says it's time to devote his energy to them.

"My goals now are all about my kids and watching them play sport," he says.

Amelia, nine, and Lachlan, eight, play tennis, touch football, AFL and netball, and David reckons little Montana, four, and Darci, 11 months, will follow suit.

"What I most enjoy these days is seeing my kids grow and playing sport with Kelly," he said.

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