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Tennis On Campus Rolls

By: KRISTEN DALEY

Grand Valley State University Wheelchair Club Tennis Team (300)
The Grand Valley State University Wheelchair Club Tennis
Team.
Tennis is growing, and with the leaps and bounds the sport has made over the last several years, club tennis teams have continued to sprout on campuses across the country. Among them are wheelchair club tennis teams that are giving disabled athletes the chance to practice, compete and represent their school through the sport they love.

University of Arizona
The University of Arizona Wheelchair Club Tennis Team began in 1997 when then-undergraduate Bryan Barten organized it with coaches Claudia Dill and Michael Cottingham. At the time, the school had only offered basketball, track and road racing teams. The tennis team grew over time, first attracting local community members to play. Today, eight U of A students make up the team, and Barten, an employee in the university’s Disability Resources Office, is now the head coach.

Jeff Odom, University of Arizona Wheelchair Club Tennis Team
Jeff Odom, University of Arizona
Wheelchair Club Tennis Team member,
readies his serve.
The team, Coach Bryan Barten says, fills a void for training and play opportunities between junior and elite adult competition. “We need something to help our players between 18 and 21, when they’re really developing their game,” he says.

Team member Jeff Odom learned about wheelchair tennis in 2002, when Cottingham approached him in a mall food court and invited him to check out a match, saying, Odom recalls, “you need to come out to tennis, that’s where the girls are at.” Viewing a tournament was Odom’s first exposure to the sport after sustaining a spinal cord injury in 2001. “I was hooked ever since,” says the junior rehab counseling major. “Six months out of the hospital and I was already on the court learning to play tennis.”

The wheelchair club tennis team is now one of five sports offered through Universiy of Arizona's Adaptive Athletics program. Team members practice amongst each other, as well as with ambulatory hitting partners, and compete in USTA/ITA tournaments and at least two collegiate tournaments each year.

Odom, a dual athlete in club wheelchair tennis and rugby, traveled and competed with the U of A team at the Small College Championships in Alabama last October, which also features ambulatory competition. “That was huge for us,” he says.

By competing in wheelchair competition during the event, “not only are we recognized athletes, but we’re getting another perspective out there, and you’re kind of crushing stereotypes,” says Odom. “Once you see how hard the athletes are working, you don’t even see the chair anymore.”

Grand Valley State University
In Grand Rapids, Mich., the Grand Rapids Wheelchair Sports Association focuses on a mission “to provide and promote competitive and recreational wheelchair sports for persons with disabilities.” So when a number of players in the GRWSA program started school at nearby Grand Valley State University, head coach Lynn Bender took the initiative to start a collegiate wheelchair tennis program at the university to capture those athletes. “What an awesome thing for a student to say they play tennis to represent their school, not thinking that they would have the chance,” says Bender.

Bender was persistent, and with the help of GRWSA volunteers and GVSU faculty and staff, the GVSU Wheelchair Club Tennis Team is now in its second year. The team’s four members practice together once a week, and also have the opportunity to practice with the GRWSA team and to take private lessons.

The players also represent the team on the university campus. “They have to take ownership,” says Bender, noting that the team raises funds for and awareness of the club among their peers.

To recruit and market the team on campus, “Facebook is a great way,” says Bender. Players also design and post flyers on campus and speak to classes, often recruiting volunteers. “I use them each for their skills and their gifts,” she says. “I have a really diverse group that helps spread the word.”

Jessica Sporte, Grand Valley State University Wheelchair Club Tennis Team
Jessica Sporte, the Grand Valley State University Wheelchair
Club Tennis Team President, hits a forehand during practice.
Like the U of A Wheelchair Tennis Team, the GVSU team travels to USTA/ITA tournaments and collegiate tournaments each year, receiving financial assistance for competition and travel. For club president Jessica Sporte, this is a perk. “I think it’s awesome,” she says. “This allows me to travel and represent Grand Valley other than in academics.”


Sporte and her teammates also participated in the Small College Championships in Alabama last October. “People who have never seen wheelchair tennis have (now) been exposed to it and see ‘wow, it’s the same,’” says Sporte, a Recreational Therapy major.

To keep the GVSU Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Team relevant and growing, Bender has begun to reach out to GRWSA athletes and their parents to teach them about the new collegiate program. “That will be our new recruiting strategy,” she says.

Growing Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis
“Disabled student athletes should have the opportunity to have a full college experience, including athletics,” says Barten. “Unfortunately, there are only a few institutions in this country that provide that opportunity.

“We would like to see more programs for disabled athletes. This, in turn, would create more competition, which is always a good thing.”

If there is an interest in forming a wheelchair club tennis team on campus, a good place to look for help is the school’s student center or recreational sports office. “Under club sport status, we do get a little funding from the student center,” Sporte says of the GVSU team. Once your group earns club status, the team may consider applying for grants from various sources.

Wheelchair athletes should not be deterred by initial low participation numbers or lack of a tennis team on their campus. For competition, an athlete just needs to be registered for three credits, and does not have to be a part of a full-fledged team. “Now anyone going to any college or university can go and play these collegiate events and represent their school,” says Barten.

For more information on:

    • University of Arizona Wheelchair Club Tennis Team

    • GVSU Wheelchair Club Tennis Team

    • USTA Wheelchair Tennis Information

    • USTA Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis Manual

    • Small College Championships

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