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Wheelchair tennis program comes up aces

A student in UTSC's wheelchair tennis program returns a shot.

Every Thursday evening since July, a unique group of aspiring athletes have gathered on the UTSC tennis courts in the Highland Creek Valley. For two hours every week, they have huffed and puffed as professional instructors have taught them the basics of the most popular racquet sport in the world – how to serve, how to return a serve, how to hit a backhand, a forehand, and maybe even a drop-shot or two. What makes these tennis players unique among the hundreds of others who frequent the UTSC courts all summer, however, is their method of movement: these players play in wheelchairs.

“It’s actually not as hard as I thought it would be,” says Chrissy Molnar, one of the participants in UTSC’s inaugural wheelchair tennis development program, which runs until the end of September. “The hard part is that if the ball goes over your head, you can’t jump up to hit it. So it’s more about figuring out where the ball is going to go. You have to use more strategy.”

The new program is the only one in the region to cater specifically to tennis players with physical disabilities. Designed and implemented by the UTSC athletics department with guidance from AccessAbility Services, and funded in-part by a grant from the Ontario Wheelchair Sports Association (OWSA), the program is staffed by UTSC tennis instructors, all of whom received special training at a workshop hosted by Tennis Canada and OWSA in June.

According to Scott McRoberts, director of the UTSC athletics department and himself an avid tennis player, the new program adds an important new capacity to his staff. “It’s very important to have instructors who are multidimensional, who can teach programs to many different groups,” says McRoberts. “At UTSC, we have many different student needs, and by having this instructional expertise on-hand we can fulfill as many of these needs as possible, and continue building programs that are all-inclusive for everybody.”

The basic difference between wheelchair tennis and regular tennis is that athletes using wheelchairs are allowed to let the ball bounce twice instead of just once between shots. But to prepare the Highland Creek courts for the program, renovations were required. Pathways and fence gates had to be widened, and the ramp leading into the tennis courts had to be leveled out. Once the renovations were complete, the OWSA awarded UTSC a three-month program grant.

The 12-week course provides participants with everything they need, including balls, racquets and affordable rental of a sport chair. For Molnar, who was a long distance runner before she broke her back in a freak accident eight years ago, the program has helped her rediscover her competitive spirit.

“I love the physical aspect, getting back into shape and competing again. That was my thing before my accident, so it’s nice to get back to doing something physical. Also, I enjoy meeting new people. I’m a stay-at-home mom with two young children, so it’s nice to be able to talk to people who aren’t two-feet tall.”

The wheelchair tennis program at UTSC provides an exciting new athletic opportunity for students with physical disabilities. But as Molnar’s example shows, it has also filled a need in the surrounding community. Molnar drives two hours each way every Thursday from her home in Bobcaygeon just to take part. 

“The fact that we can offer this program to people is phenomenal,” says McRoberts. “All it takes is minor adjustments to our facilities, and they end up benefiting not only our students but our neighbours in surrounding communities.”

McRoberts recently learned that as a result of this program, Toronto 2015 is now interested in UTSC as a potential site for the tennis events of the 2015 ParaPan American Games.

“This just shows you what we can do with a little bit of investment, effort and collaboration,” he says. “We’re also hoping to host a national wheelchair tennis tournament next year.”

As for Molnar, she is looking forward to taking what she’s learning here at UTSC back to the courts of Peterborough, where she occasionally plays. “In the beginning, we were just doing short rallies really close to the net, and those were kind of tricky. But now we’re going full-court, and I think I’m doing a lot better!”

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