West Magazine features recipient, Kiland!

Parkway tennis player finds his way back to the court after game-changing injury

Kiland Sampa

Kiland Sampa

Nothing in life comes easy. Things can change in a fraction of a second.

For Parkway North senior Kiland Sampa, that change resulted in him becoming a quadriplegic. But Sampa refused to let his disability stop him from playing tennis.

Time has a way of helping a person deal with the tragic, the unknowable, the unthinkable. There are always possibilities. For Sampa, who turns 18 in June, that meant getting back on the court, where he competes and plays hard. He doesn’t know any other way.

“Kiland is an inspiration to me, to his family, friends and people who come in contact with him daily,” said Jess Campbell Batchelor, a tennis coach at Creve Coeur Racquet Club. “Kiland knows that the people who love him most don’t even see his wheelchair anymore. We just see Kiland’s vibrant personality.”

Tennis has long been a part of Sampa’s life.

“I stated playing when I was about four years,” Sampa said. “My grandmother [Cheryl Holland] played when she was young. She wanted me to play.

“At first, it was hard to get the hang of the game. My friends weren’t playing tennis. They were playing football and basketball.”

But Sampa was good at tennis. As a freshman at Parkway North, he impressed coach Ron Lefcourt.

“He was one of the top ranked players in his age group,” Lefcourt said. “He was high on the list of people making a difference on our team. He went to state in doubles with a senior [Jacob Sandweiss]. They lost, but it was a really good experience for Kiland. He started at No. 2 singles and played some No. 1 singles that year.”

Sampa remembers it well.

Kiland Sampa - Cover photo“I was a No. 2 varsity player. I had a really great season,” he said. “It was so exciting to go to state, especially as a freshman. My coach told me I was the first freshman in a long time to go to state for Parkway North.”

He thought it would be an annual happening.

“I was really good. I was planning on going to state every year,” Sampa. “I truly believed that would have happened if I didn’t get hurt.”

The future looked bright. But it turned dark over the Fourth of July weekend in 2013. Playing in Indianapolis for the Mid-Tac Tennis Tournament, Sampa got hurt – but not on the court.

After playing, he wanted to go swimming. He hit his head and broke his neck when he dove into the shallow end of the hotel pool. He damaged the C6-7 vertebra in his spinal cord and underwent surgery the following day.

After the accident, Sampa said, “I literally couldn’t move anything – my arms, legs and hands. I was dead in the water. I don’t remember it, but Nazeer [Robinson – his doubles partner and friend] pulled me out of the pool. I really thought I was going to die.”

Game changer

Just like that, Sampa’s life changed.

“I took a deep breath and went into the pool,” Sampa said. “I was talking and laughing. Then I dove. I was losing my breath. It was a scary moment.”

His mother, Kyra Holland, was back in St. Louis.

“Because he was going to so many tournaments, my mother took him to that tournament,” she said. “On the very last day, they had a banquet. They all wanted to swim. At first, my mother told him no but she gave in and from what I heard, he dove in.

“My mother called me as the paramedics were there. It was just terrible. We didn’t know what happened. My mother thought he had a seizure. I was a nervous wreck. He was breathing but they didn’t know.”

When she got to the hospital, her son was on life support and connected to many tubes. Sampa never had been in a hospital before.

“I wasn’t even thinking about moving. I wasn’t thinking about moving my legs,” Sampa said. “I just thought I’d leave sometime. I can’t tell you what my emotions were. I was in shock.

“I saw how much my mom was crying and how badly my grandmother was hurt. I knew it wasn’t good.”

When he was able, Sampa came back to St. Louis and went to Ranken Jordan Pediatric Specialty Hospital.

It was there that he finally asked his doctors about his situation.

“They said I would never walk again,” Sampa said. “It was about a 3 percent change. I realized then I’d be in there for a while. At the time, I couldn’t believe. I’d cry for I don’t know how many days.”

Eventually he got past the shock and realized that he had his whole life ahead of him.

“I decided to go on,” Sampa said. “I saw how many people at the hospital were down on themselves for what happened to them. I said don’t let anything affect you. Things happen.

“I’ve always tried to have a positive attitude from then on.”

There were many ways Sampa was supported. MO KIDS got the family a van. A ramp was built onto the front of his house.

“We’ve gotten a lot of help from DASA [Disabled Athlete Sports Association] in St. Peters. Someone referred me to them,” Holland said. “They had a strength training program to build his upper body. I took him. He’s been active with that program for two years.

“They helped build his back muscles. He’s paralyzed from the chest down. But he can sit up straight. He gets around in his wheelchair.”

And, of course, Ranken Jordan has been a place for which Holland is grateful.

“Oh my gosh, they’ve done so much at Ranken Jordan,” she said. “Not only the care for Kiland but they are just amazing. I thank God every day. Kiland is doing so well. People are looking out for us.”

Sampa agreed.

“If you ever have problems like this, Ranken Jordan is the place to be. They made me be at home there,” Sampa said. “It wasn’t like a hospital. It was fun. We played games. As far as the rehab, it was so tiring. I can’t tell you how tired I was.

“You don’t know how badly your body is affected by the injury. I had to train myself to sit up straight.”

After about 4 1/2 months there, it was time to go home.

“I made so many good friends there and I had made a bond with almost every nurse, every doctor and every patient there,” Sampa said. “I had fun there for sure, but I was excited to go home.”

Back in the swing

It seemed his recovery was going great; then, a year ago, Sampa’s life changed once more.

Batchelor reached out about playing tennis again. She has more than 20 wheelchair athletes in the Gerber Wheelchair Tennis Program at Dwight Davis Tennis Center and has been working with wheelchair athletes since 2009.

“I heard about Kiland after his diving accident,” Batchelor said. “I knew he was a stand-up player and I got his name and number from a friend who said he might be interested in getting back on the court.

“I told him he didn’t have to compete again or commit to any length of time with me, but just asked him to come try it. We started slow but as soon as he realized he could rip a forehand with the racket taped to his hand he couldn’t stop.”

Sampa said he is happy he decided to do it, even if he was reluctant at first.

“Without her, I wouldn’t be playing tennis right now,” Sampa said. “She’s made a big impact on me. I can’t thank her enough.”

This spring, Sampa came back to play for the Vikings.

“He has a winning competitive mentality. He helped out with the team last year. He came to practice and helped me coach. He has a wealth of knowledge [and] gets along with the kids really well,” Lefcourt said. “I wanted the kids who don’t know him to  [know about] what he’s gone through and what it takes to come back. It hasn’t been totally easy for him.”

Getting back to the high school circuit began with Lefcourt speaking with other area coaches. All of them liked the idea.

“Kids on other teams have volunteered to play him,” Lefcourt said. “He plays regular matches. After he plays his matches, he’s angry if he doesn’t win. He’s angry because he has that competitive spirit.”

Sampa said he was nervous about getting back to competitive play, but now he is adjusted and happy to be playing again – and he wants to be treated the same as everyone else.

“We played Parkway Central recently and they had a freshman playing against him,” Lefcourt said. “Kiland came off the court and he was upset the guy was giving him line calls. The kid was playing balls out and he was good-natured but that’s something Kiland doesn’t want. He’d rather the calls be made.”

Holland is happy to see her son playing for Parkway North again.

“He’s back on the tennis team. I was shocked when the coach asked about it and he accepted it,” Holland said. “He didn’t want to let the team down. They wanted to see him on the court. Everybody encouraged him.

“I’m so thankful for Parkway North and Coach Lefcourt.”

Sampa, also, is glad it worked out.

“I definitely did not want to play at all [after the accident],” he said. “My mom literally forced me. She tried to get me involved in everything. I have to thank her.”

His progress has been good, Batchelor said.

“If I had to quantify it, I’d say Kiland has gone from a 1.0 level wheelchair player to a 3.0 level player in very little time,” Batchelor said. “Any tennis player who knows that rating system knows that’s a quick jump in just over a year.

“He has understood the strategy behind tennis since he was very young, but now being a wheelchair player means he has had to learn different types of strokes and movement patterns. He’s picked those up quickly and is, and always will be, a great student of the game.”

Batchelor is excited to see what Sampa’s future holds.

“There is no greater reward than seeing someone return to playing a game they love deeply after an injury. The greatest joy I have is knowing that he is playing high school tennis. I will also be thrilled to watch him return to the 2016 USTA U.S. Open Wheelchair Championships at Dwight Davis in Forest Park Oct. 4-9 this year,” Batchelor said. “I love his enthusiasm and his infectious energy.”

Both his coaches and his mom say Sampa is an inspiration.

“He has accomplished so much in my opinion,” Holland said. “He’s come a long ways from not being able to sit up. He doesn’t complain. He’s gone through a lot and he’s grinning and bearing it.

“I am extremely proud.”

Lefcourt said Sampa is a “huge inspiration” to his fellow Vikings.

“One of the good things about coaching is something like this,” Lefcourt said. “One of the best things about this season for me is having him back.”

Sampa goes back to Ranken Jordan every Friday to volunteer.

“Sometimes I read to the kids. I play with them or shoot a basketball. Mostly, we just talk about our injuries and I let them know how I’ve done,” Sampa said. “Anything the kids want to talk about, I do. I never really saw myself as an inspiration. It’s a really cool feeling.”

In the fall, Sampa will go to St. Louis Community College at Meramec.

“I want to do something with kids,” he said. “I want to make an impact.”

He already has.