The red, white and blue sticker that U.S. Open ballperson Ryan McIntosh wears on his carbon-fiber prosthetic right leg packs a meaningful message: ”Freedom is not free, but it’s worth fighting for.”
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Yet if the time he spends chasing tennis balls and handing water and towels to the world’s best players goes the way he hopes, hardly anyone will notice it.
An Army specialist who lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan two years ago, McIntosh is spending the end of his summer working for $7.75 an hour at Flushing Meadows. His goal: Trying to be helpful and invisible at the same time, an inspiration to people like himself but not a distraction to those he’s working for.
”I’m just a ballperson when I’m here,” McIntosh, 23, said Wednesday. ”It’s the same when I’m in the Army. I’m just a specialist. I’m not anything special. I don’t consider myself a wounded warrior. When I have my uniform on, you cannot tell. And that’s kind of my biggest goal here, too.”
That the Paralympic Games opened in London on Wednesday was not lost on McIntosh, who paid little attention to Oscar Pistorius before his injury but is now more in touch with the ”Blade Runner’s” role in inspiring amputees to compete in both able-bodied and paralympic sports.
Pistorius, who made his London Olympic debut in the 400 meters, was born without fibulas and his legs were amputated below the knee before he was a year old. McIntosh was walking single file through a river valley near Kandahar with his platoon in December 2010 when he stepped on a pressure-plate land mine. It detonated and catapulted him 10 feet in the air. About a half-hour later, he was in surgery. His leg was amputated mid-shin.
Working a match on Court 4, McIntosh hustled to every ball, anticipated when the players would need their towels and tossed with a nice, low ball flight that one of his teammates on the crew, Jerry Loughran, said ”would work perfect” in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
”They asked me, `Can you throw a tennis ball?”’ McIntosh said. ”I said, `I’ve thrown grenades, so I think I can handle a tennis ball.”’
The idea that he might become a ballperson surfaced earlier this year in Colorado Springs, Colo., where McIntosh, a promising sprinter in high school, competed in the Warrior Games — an Olympic-style sports festival for wounded military.
He tried out along with about 600 people and made the cut. He’s been working side courts so far in the tournament, with one brief stint in Louis Armstrong Stadium for American James Blake’s match.
”I don’t want to be callous, but leg or no leg, they have to be at the same level of capacity,” said McIntosh’s U.S. Open supervisor, Tina Taps. ”He shines out there. And with his military background and sense of teamwork, he personifies what we want to do with these kids.”
If he’s getting noticed on the courts, it’s only in a positive way.
”I had some tension at the beginning of the match, but then I saw him and I thought, `OK, you’re fine. Life is good,”’ said Pauline Parmentier of France, who defeated No. 25 Yanina Wickmayer on Court 4. ”He was good at his job, very good.”
McIntosh isn’t the only amputee working as a ballperson at Flushing Meadows. Denise Castelli, 26, worked last year’s U.S. Open and is back again.
McIntosh is part of the U.S. Tennis Association’s effort to reach out to military members and introduce them to physical and psychological benefits of tennis. Next Monday is Military Day at the U.S. Open and McIntosh will work in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where there will be wounded soldiers watching from the suites.
”My big picture is just to honor those guys who have been injured just like I was and say, `You guys can still do anything you want,’ ” McIntosh said.
His accident occurred four months and three days before his son, Kaden, was born. McIntosh said he was in a hurry to start walking, then running again so he could be up to full speed before the baby had a chance to note there was anything ”different” about Dad.
”When I was growing up, my dad was always my coach, always right by my side. That’s what I want to do with my son,” McIntosh said.
He currently works as the adaptive sports coordinator in the Army, helping wounded soldiers get back into sports while they recover from their injuries.
If things work out, McIntosh wants to take a break from that job and start training seriously for the 2016 Paralympics. A major step will come next year at the Warrior Games, where, if he performs well enough, he could get financial help for his training.
For now, though, his focus is at Flushing Meadows. And though tennis had never been his thing before this year, the idea of helping others while challenging himself is a natural fit.
”It does coincide, because that’s who I am,” he said. ”If you need anything out of me, I’m going to do it, no matter what.”