Match Pointe wheelchair tennis offers disabled athletes a competitive environment
Match Pointe wheelchair tennis has offered a competitive athletic option for disabled athletes in South Dakota.
SIOUX FALLS — Intensity. Competitiveness. Joy.
That’s what consumes Hilary Muehlberger when she picks up a tennis racket each week. She can toss aside the stresses of life and go toe-to-toe with an opponent in pure competition, something once thought to be gone from her life.
The only difference between Muehlberger and any other avid tennis player is that the squeak of sneakers on the court is replaced by the squeak of wheelchair wheels.
The 2020 Ms. Wheelchair America winner picked up wheelchair tennis in 2016 after suffering a spinal cord injury in a car crash. Once a competitive volleyball and soccer player, Muehlberger was able to once again sink her teeth into athletics in a way she no longer thought possible.
On Saturday and Sunday, Muehlberger drove from Missouri to Sioux Falls to aid in a wheelchair tennis showcase hosted by the Huether Family Match Pointe facility in hopes of spreading the sport to help others find or regain the same passion.
“I’ve learned more through my teammates and adaptive sports than I ever would sitting in a doctor’s office,” Muehlberger said. “They always come up with new ways for me to be independent. I think it’s invaluable. We want everyone to be as independent as they can. To whatever level that may be, that’s up to me then. Even if it’s something small, it can change someone’s entire outlook.”
At the time of her crash, Muehlberger was drinking heavily and had a drug addiction. She was able to find sobriety and had a desire to get involved in athletics, but disliked going to a gym. Muehlberger happened upon tennis and it filled a piece of life that was missing after the crash.
Having similar-minded people on the tennis team to interact with helped navigate the new challenges she was unaccustomed to facing. She even likened tennis to free therapy.
But what was unexpected was the level of competition. Like many who are unfamiliar with adaptive sports, Muehlberger assumed it was going to be easy and uncompetitive. Such a theory was proven wrong on the first day. She learned how adaptive sports have national and world rankings, while the Paralympics were more akin to the Olympics than Special Olympics.
“Once I got into tennis, I learned I was very much wrong,” Muehlberger said. “I’ve been to (wheelchair) rugby and basketball and those guys are no joke. I’ve never tried sled hockey, but there were a bunch of those guys (in Sioux Falls) this weekend and those guys are intense. When you come from the able-bodied world, you don’t see the Paralympics or adaptive sports unless you have a reason to be involved.”
Among those joining Muehlberger at Match Pointe — which hosts drills and a summer league from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays at Frank Olson Park in Sioux Falls — was Bob Uecker, a walking quadrapalegic, injured in a car crash at the age of 17.
Until the crash created different paralysis in all four limbs, Uecker was eyeing a college football scholarship as a placekicker. The Sioux Falls resident was determined to maintain the mindset of an athlete, focusing on strength training and adaptive water and snow skiing, but never played or interacted with people who played wheelchair sports.
Because he was able to walk with a cane, Uecker was determined to avoid using a wheelchair for nearly 40 years. He felt it came with a stigma that he was somehow less able with a chair. A cancer scare eventually ravaged his body for a period in 2016 and he reluctantly began to use a chair, which ultimately led to attempting adaptive tennis.
“I did not want to consider myself disabled, I did not want to be around other people who were disabled — I wanted to be around able-bodied people because I wanted to aspire to that,” Uecker said. “It wasn’t until I found Ski for Light in (the Black Hills) that completely changed my outlook on life.”
While rehabilitating from cancer, Uecker — who initially met Muehlberger at a downhill skiing event in Lead — decided to try tennis and his mindset began to evolve. He enjoyed the sport and found it was something he could progressively improve. As he continued to play, the teenage competitor that was wiped away 40 years earlier began to reemerge.
“It helped me refocus and set some goals athletically,” said Uecker, who is a salesman by trade. “In the brain, I’m still an athlete, so I wanted to chase something. We have this great facility and we just had this great weekend with coaches that know exactly what to tell us.”
Creating a competitive environment
When Match Pointe and Sanford Health paired to begin adaptive tennis three years ago, the goal was simply to find enough players. As a pair of the United States Tennis Association Northern, Match Pointe tennis pro Lisa Marie Johnson began to reach out to similar programs in the region.
Match Pointe has eight players — 15 attended the showcase — that consistently practice twice per month year-round, with hopes of beginning to play or host travel tournaments in the future. Johnson says Match Pointe — which has six indoor courts and is located at the Sanford Sports Complex — will hold an annual wheelchair tennis showcase, along with a USTA-sanctioned tournament to coincide with a rapidly growing sport.
“All the professional Grand Slams — U.S. Open, Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon — hosted open wheelchair tennis (divisions) for the first time,” Johnson said. “It’s competitive at every level.”
For Muehlberger and Uecker, discovering tennis not only reignited competitive passions, but allowed them to shuck stigmas developed in the able-bodied world. In a competitive tennis match, they no longer feel the need to prove their competency and normalcy to the rest of the world.
“For a long time, I didn’t realize how hard I was trying to make other people around me feel comfortable,” Muehlberger said. “I always felt like I was in the way and I never wanted people to do something extra for me. I never realized how much I was doing that until I started playing adaptive sports. When I was around peers, it turned into something different, where I felt free.”