An amazing feat
Washington High school tennis coach Daniel Manzer knew Connor Wilkins was special the moment the freshman topped junior Luke Harris 8-1 in the preseason to earn the No. 1 seed on the team heading into the season opener. However, those that have been around Wilkins a little bit longer have known he was special for quite some time now.
Growing up with a grandfather who played tennis and an uncle who owned a racquet club, tennis flowed through Wilkins’ veins since the day he was born. Unfortunately for the young netter, so did a birth defect called Tarsal Coalition, a condition in which two bones in the back of the foot fuse to make an abnormal connection.
Looking back at this season it’s hard to imagine that the young netter who went 25-5 in singles play thanks to his capability to speedily shifting his lanky 6-1 frame from left to right and right to left like a flip-flopping politician ever suffered from a foot condition. A fact that becomes even more impressive when finding out that Wilkins had Tarsal Coalition in not only in one foot, but two.
According to Wilkins’ mother Lisa, Tarsal Coalition affects roughly one percent of the population, and of that one percent, only 20 percent have it in both feet, which makes his ability to even play tennis an amazing feat in itself.
Tarsal Coalition does not make itself apparent at first. It comes into affect around the ages of 9-12-years old, as the bones begin to further develop.
In fifth grade Connor, a pitcher on the diamond and a goalie on the pitch, first began to notice it when he could not compete without pain and struggled to keep his balance. It’s safe to say that some of the batters that dug in to face him took notice as well.
“I would be pitching and I would start throwing the ball really wildly and start hitting batters because I was stepping weird when I came off the mound,” Connor said.
With apologies to the plunked, Wilkins soon discovered that his Tarsal Coalition made his feet a Coalition of the Unwilling and scheduled a surgery that would correct the problem by the end of May 2008.
“It felt really good,” Wilkins said of the procedure. “I didn’t have to walk on the side of my foot any more.”
Wilkins went through a trying rehab period that included being wheelchair bound before graduating to crutches and eventually being able to get back on the soccer field. Unfortunately for Wilkins, the joy lasted slightly longer than Kim Kardashian’s marriage as he was informed that his other foot was afflicted as well.
“They did a CT scan and saw something in his right foot at the end of his recouping period and said it was worse than the left foot,” Lisa said. “So they scheduled him for another surgery in that upcoming November.”
While the first surgery was a success, the second one did not go as smoothly.
“We had some complications. There was some hemorrhaging and some things that just didn’t go right as far as pain management and infection,” Lisa said. “He made it through the summer but he was not pain free. He was playing tennis and kept complaining that his foot was hurting him.”
Eventually, the pain became too severe to ignore.
“We made it through one school year, two summers, and the summer before eighth grade he was really complaining about it,” Lisa said. “He attempted to play soccer and he couldn’t run without limping. Then we found out that fall that something had gone haywire with the surgery. The bone had grown back together. That surgery was the most dramatic for him because he had felt like he was over all this.”
So it was back to the operating room for Connor, who after suffering a broken wrist while playing ultimate football in gym class, had been in more huddles with doctors than teammates.
The third procedure not only took away another opportunity for Connor to play soccer, but nearly broke his spirit.
“He wanted to play soccer and we tried to time it so that he could but they would not clear him,” Lisa said. “It was about a week or two before soccer and he was getting checked out and (the doctor) said ‘I just can’t let you.’ He just hung his head. I was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Like he has done so often on the tennis court, Connor returned with ferocity and by the time he was a rising freshman had begun to take steps towards recovering from his third foot surgery by competing in USTA (United States Tennis Association) tournaments where he excelled.
Despite that success, Connor never imagined a pain-free freshman season in which he would fall one win shy of making the state tournament along with compiling a 9-3 doubles record with his partner Luke Harris. Connor’s incredible freshman year was equally astounded his coach.
“Luke Harris was going to be my no-doubt No. 1 this year,” Pam Pack first-year coach Daniel Manzer said. “I said Connor is going to be good and will definitely be a top-six player but I want to see them play each other, just for the heck-of-it. He beat Luke 8-1 the first time they played and I said to myself, ‘Wow, this kid is going to be something special.’ That’s when I knew he was going to be really good.”
Just how good remains to be seen, but Manzer said that the combination of his skill set, knowledge of the game and his growing 6-1 frame makes for a perfect storm of potential.
“Connor goes out and play smart tennis. He plays a lot of boys that are bigger and stronger and older than he is but he makes sure he doesn’t make the mistakes. He makes them make the mistakes,” Manzer said. “His strokes are equal to anybody in the conference. His first serve and second serves are equal to anybody in the conference and he’s just a freshman. So all I got to say is everybody in the conference better watch out because he’s got three years to grow up.”