Photo: Paul ZimmerStephane Houdet (FRA)
Stephane Houdet has packed a lot into his 42 years. The Frenchman has been a vet, a motorcyclist, a champion golfer and is planning to learn to drive so he can compete in the Le Mans 24-hour car race. He also happens to be one of the best wheelchair tennis players on the planet.
Houdet recently returned from a trip to Tanzania, where he travelled as part of his role as an ambassador for Tennis For Africa. Little wonder the children he met there found themselves inspired by a man who lives by a very simple philosophy. “I tell my kids all the time, ‘nothing is impossible’,” says Houdet. “All things can happen if you trust yourself and you believe in what you do.”
“We went to a school in Tanzania and there were 500 kids playing wheelchair basketball and tennis and the people there said: ‘Now it’s great, because we can show everyone what is possible even when you have a disability and when you have something missing. It’s nice to share that and it was a big feeling.”
It’s hard not to be inspired by Houdet’s story. He was a promising junior tennis player as a boy and only stopped playing seriously because he got a place at college to study veterinary science and begin building for what turned out to be a successful career as a vet. In summer 1996, while taking a break after calving season, Houdet and a fellow vet decided to ride across Europe on motorbikes with the typically ambitious goal of visiting every European capital.
The accident that happened on that trip changed Houdet’s life in so many ways, not least because it gave him even more drive and determination to make the most of his talents. “When you fall so far down, as I did, you have only two options - you go back or you die,” explains Houdet. “You learn that when you are in a hospital and you are just trying to eat with a spoon and not miss your mouth because you cannot feed yourself. That’s what I was like but still I recovered. That gives you a peace within yourself.”
Despite a leg that was barely functional (it was eventually amputated eight years later), Houdet began practicing as a vet again but soon the competitive drive resurfaced, and he took up golf. “I needed to find the sportsman in me again,” he says, simply. It soon became clear that the sportsman within Houdet was a very talented one, and he went from shooting an impressive 13-over-par on his first try to becoming one of the stars of the World Golf Tour for the Disabled.
Playing a pro-am golf event in December 2003, Houdet was paired with Johann Cruyff and it was the legendary soccer player (and pioneer for disability sports, whose Cruyff Foundation is a partner of the Wheelchair Tennis Development Fund), who suggested that he try wheelchair tennis. Houdet began competing - and winning - regularly. Then fate intervened in two ways: Houdet and his medical team made the difficult decision to amputate his leg, which meant no golf for a year, and in 2005 golf was dropped from the roster for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Houdet’s mind was made up. “It became my new dream,” he says.
Dreams became reality, with gold in doubles (with Michael Jeremiasz) at the Beijing Olympics and seven Grand Slam doubles titles but the highlight for Houdet was his 2012 singles win at Roland Garros, in his native Paris, with his children among the friends, family and fans sitting courtside. It was a victory that also elevated him to No. 1 in the world, where he remained until Shingo Kunieda took over the top spot in January.
Inspired by Cryuff, whom he describes as “a great guy who makes things happen,” Houdet is also a big advocate for his sport. “Things are so positive. Everyone who watches wheelchair tennis says: ‘Wow! This is amazing,’” he says. “There are lots of possibilities opening up.”
A few hours after winning his gold medal in Beijing, Houdet met the vet with whom he had been travelling when he had his motorcycle accident. “After the accident, I had always been very positive but at the time he found that difficult. When I saw him in Beijing he said to me, ‘okay, you were right. Now I understand. You won a gold medal, you play wheelchair tennis, you travel the world. Without that accident, you would still be with me in the middle of nowhere in France, doing surgery on cows in the middle of the night.”
It seems as though the veterinary practice - and the cows - will just have to wait.
This interview was first published in the Spring 2013 issue of ITF World.