Freewheeling Atif Moon Rises to the Occasion

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 Atif Moon Represents American in the Very Best Way!

Atif Moon Tennis Award 2013

Olympiad Oscar Pistorius, the so-called “Blade Runner,” has been in the news a lot lately, but this is a more positive story about another disabled athlete, Atif Moon, who is competing to win gold at the Paralympics while representing America.

“Tennis anyone?” is so commonplace an expression that it’s cliché. What if you wanted to play — but were born with neuroblastoma, a tumor on the spinal cord? Atif Moon came into the world in 1985 with this late stage cancer and was not expected to survive. By the time Atif Moon was a month old he’d undergone three surgeries. Against all odds the infant — who even then proved to be a scrappy survivor — lived. However, the condition caused Atif Moon to have scoliosis and to be paralyzed from the waist down. Barring a medical miracle, he’ll use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

The disease is just the first of numerous hurdles which the wheelchair-using youth has had to leap over. According to the Mayo Clinic, neuroblastoma “is an uncommon type of cancer” — but then again, Atif Moon is an uncommon type of individual. The life story of this remarkable lad in the wheelchair inspires one to stand up and cheer. Despite his disability and a series of surgeries, the athletics-minded Atif Moon has earned a Master’s degree, interned for the White House and pro-sports teams, worked for The Tonight Show, spoken before large audiences, won tennis tournaments and accolades on and off the court and is striving to score Paralympic gold.

Independence has been a lifelong challenge and quest for Atif Moon. Ho-hum tasks able-bodied people take for granted can present formidable obstacles for the disabled. Routine chores such as going to the bathroom, changing clothes or just getting around can loom like the twelve labors of Hercules for the infirm. For instance, due to his curved spine during his childhood Atif Moon began each morning with his parents putting his back brace on to keep his upper body straight.

The first test of Atif’s ability to do things for himself, outside of the home, came when his schooling started. The 27-year-old vaguely remembers “going to a specialized school where I took adaptive classes during kindergarten and first grade,” but for the rest of his formal education Atif Moon attended public schools, all the way from Victor Elementary through graduate school.

Atif Moon was plunged into a peer group where, he says, “I was the only one in a wheelchair at that school. It was difficult and took a lot of getting used to. I kind of felt out of place and was questioning why I was in a wheelchair and not everyone else. And even at that school they put me in adaptive P.E. class, and I didn’t like that, because I wanted to be part of the main physical education class. Finally I was able to do that and feel more like part of the main group.”

How did the pupils treat their classmate in the wheelchair? “I felt like everyone was very accommodating,” Atif Moon relates. “I remember that in fourth grade one kid was like a bully, he was just bothering me; I don’t know why. But I was lucky; nobody really treated me poorly or anything. At recess, I loved to play basketball… and during P.E., handball, in my chair, along with the other children.” Other sports Atif Moon pursued at the time included wheelchair racing and Kung fu, studying under a black belt in a wheelchair in Santa Monica. At age five, Atif began his lifelong love affair with tennis, taking lessons from an able-bodied instructor.

In 1998 spinal fusion surgery, with two quarter inch diameter stainless steel rods inserted into his back from both hips to the collar bone, enabled Atif Moon to sit straight and to change clothing and shower on his own. The rod along his spinal cord made it no longer necessary to wear a back brace, enhancing Atif’s autonomy.

Atif Moon goes on to say, “The turning point in my life was going to UCLA in 2003.” The freshman decided to give living on his own in the dorms on campus a shot. His confidence was bolstered by UCLA’s supportive, accommodating disabilities office and accessible campus, with handi-vans for transporting disabled students across the hills from dorms to classrooms on the university’s extensive grounds. At his Pakistani-born father Munir Moon’s alma mater Atif Moon majored in business economics.

In 2007, Atif Moon graduated from UCLA with a B.A. He went on to earn a Master’s in sport management in 2011; he commuted from Palos Verdes, driving a modified Honda Element with a ramp on the passenger side that allows him to roll into the vehicle, transfer to the driver’s seat and lock his chair in. Atif’s dream is “to work for a sports organization, a team or network, more on the business-side, like marketing.” Since his boyhood Atif Moon has been an avid fan, with his father taking him to UCLA basketball and football games, of Bruins, Lakers and Kings games. Hockey is his favorite spectator sport; his heroes are Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Roger Federer.

Atif Moon and His Family

Encouraged by his father Atif Moon parlayed his passion for athletics into internships. During sophomore year he worked for Fox Sports. Atif also interned for the Kings, the Clippers and the LA Galaxy, the soccer team David Beckham played for.

Not all of Atif’s internships have been sports related. From September to December, 2006 he moved to Washington, working for the White House’s Office of Presidential Correspondence. “It was scary at first, living so far away from home, not knowing if I’d be able to get around and have access. But there were ramps everywhere; the metro system was excellent. I made good friends. It was a great experience.”

When the internship ended Atif Moon joined a photo session with other interns, Pres. George W. Bush and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney in the Indian Treaty Room of the Old Executive Office Building. After the picture-taking the commander-in-chief thanked the interns and fielded questions.

Starting in December 2007 Atif Moon worked for the Page Program of NBC Universal at the studio in what Johnny Carson used to call “wonderful downtown Burbank,” living on his own in a nearby North Hollywood apartment. Atif was assigned to the Guest Relations office, answering phones, giving studio tours and helping The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Atif found the comic to be “pretty cool, down to earth and appreciative of his staff, including the pages.” Atif sometimes sat in on The Tonight Show’s taping; memorable guests he saw in person included Bill Cosby, tennis player Novak Djokovic and Pres. Bush — although, he jokes, there were too many Secret Service agents for Atif to roll up to the prez and say: “Hi! Remember me?”

Atif Moon currently works for his father’s business. Together they co-founded the Center for Global Understanding (CFGU), a non-profit civic and educational organization designed to bring people together by developing human capital. While he enjoyed those brushes with the high and mighty of politics and show biz, sports remains his passion, serving to build him up, body and soul. “Tennis has given me the mental and physical discipline, and it applies to other areas,” Atif Moon relates. “Just being focused — when you’re on the court tennis is one of the rare sports where you’re on your own. You’re not allowed to be coached during a match. If it’s singles, it’s just you and your opponent… I love the competition, finding ways to deal with adversity… Exercising in general is good and I love the sense of accomplishment.”

Atif Moon Athlete

The competitor adds: “My goal is the Paralympics,” the Olympic counterpart for physically disabled athletes, scheduled to take place September 2016 at Rio de Janeiro. Atif is training to move up to the Open Division, the Paralympics’ highest classification for wheelchair tennis.

When this writer caught up with Atif, his tenacious coach Anthony Lara was putting the competitor through his paces at the Shadow Oak Park courts in West Covina, L.A. Anthony barked orders like a French Foreign Legion drill sergeant as Atif deftly, swiftly spun his specially modified playing chair with slanted wheels on the sides and two smaller wheels in the front and one in the back through colored markers on the grounds. “Don’t slow down! Don’t slow down! Go! There you go! Nice! Go! Go! Go!” Anthony coaxes and chides his student as he trains a breathless Atif for the Southern California Open, an upcoming tournament at Palm Springs.

Wheelchair tennis requires a unique set of skills, as the player must propel the chair using both arms, then swat the ball with the hand holding the racket. Between matches Anthony and Atif good-naturedly banter about the Lakers and Bruins, sounding like any other jocks. One almost expects them to snap towels at each other in the locker room.

Anthony has coached Atif for about five years but known him since he was a “wide eyed child” on the courts. Since then, “Mr. Moon has grown up in so many ways that made me respect him even more, not just as an instructor but as a friend. This young man in what he has accomplished has gone far beyond the tennis court… I’m quite proud of him. He’s one of my top students — he has goals. In the next four years he wants to represent his country in the Paralympics at Brazil… Atif is very unique, inspirational; he lives life to the fullest, on and off the court.”
In addition to tennis trophies, Anthony is referring to Atif’s other accolades, which include being honored as one of “Ten Outstanding Young Californians 2008” by the California Junior Chamber and being recognized by the U.S. Jaycees as one of the “Ten Outstanding Young Americans 2009.” For the latter Atif traveled to Florida, wore a tuxedo and spoke to 500 attendees at the black tie awards ceremony; as far as he knows he’s the only Muslim American to receive this honor, whose recipients have included John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Elvis. He has also joined Toastmasters to master public speaking so he can bring his inspiring story to a wide audience.

A series of surgeries have periodically sidelined Atif, causing him to lose “big mo’.” But he always gets back up to ride in the saddle again, making comebacks on and off the court. The rod put inside of Atif’s back in 1998 broke in mid-2000, necessitating another operation that December. In August 2001 it was discovered the new rod had also broken, leading to a lengthy, complex surgical procedure. After losing about 18 months, later in ’01 Atif was able to get back on the courts and resume exercising. However, in 2008 he started feeling intense pain in his back and side; after examinations by doctors Munir noticed in an x-ray there was a break in the latest rod, too. The Moons set out to find another doctor who came up with a new plan of action and performed another surgery in 2009 that lasted 14 hours and caused a lung to deflate. “Since then, my back has been great, and after a year I started playing tennis again,” says Atif, who has also undergone osteopathic manipulative treatment and taken up swimming.

With the unwavering devotion of his family, Atif has not only survived but thrived. “My dad always taught me to aim high and to try new things. He’s always pushed me to do things; he’s been very supportive.” Independence is essential to Atif and sports have played an indispensable role in expanding his self reliance. “I just don’t like relying on other people to do things for me. It’s just a sense of more freedom; feeling good that I don’t need anybody’s help. People with disabilities want to be independent, to be able to do things by themselves. I’ll still ask for help if I need it, but if I can do something I try to do it myself. I also like the challenge of trying to figure things out.” In addition to competing in the Paralympics Atif hopes to someday marry.

Atif means “compassionate.” His will, determination, intellect and spirit are not confined to a wheelchair. He’s not a passive victim but rather an active survivor and liver of life. Despite everything existence has thrown at the freewheeling Atif, he remains ready to roll. Atif is enabled by his chair to be ambulatory and do everyday things, while a souped-up wheelchair makes it possible to play tennis competitively. Along with the chairs, a customized car, his faith, the love and dedication of family and friends, when combined with his guts, drive and sheer determination, this remarkable young man is not “wheelchair-bound”: He is indeed Atif unbound.

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Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film critic/historian and author named after Edward R. Murrow, in honor of the broadcaster’s exposé of Senator Joe McCarthy. As a film critic and historian Rampell co-wrote Made in Paradise: Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies and Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States. He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc., Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, and is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal.

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