Sarah Hunter found freedom on the court
Sarah Hunter, a champion tennis player who competed at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, came close to quitting the sport entirely. When she was well into her pregnancy — something many had thought unlikely, since she’d been in a wheelchair for nine years — she and her partner decided she’d hang up her tennis racket for good, depending on the temperament of their offspring.
Out came Kate — bouncy, happy, and unusually tolerant of plane rides, strangers and new situations — and a fitting companion at international competitions like the Beijing Paralympic Games.
“She [Kate] is a great flyer, and everyone on the tour loves her,” Hunter said in a telephone interview from her White Rock home. “She’s overshadowing me.”
In what seems like every professional woman’s dream, having a baby actually accelerated Hunter’s career.
Now, with Kate in tow, Hunter is ready to face off against her court foes at the Beijing Paralympic Games with partner Janet Petras and, of course, Kate cheering for her from the stands.
Currently ranked first in the country and fifth in the world in quadriplegic wheelchair tennis, Hunter is no stranger to athletic competition.
Once a member of the Canadian national field lacrosse team, she also officiated Junior B mens’ hockey.
She was disabled by a hockey injury in 1997 after she hit a rut in the ice, which caused her neck to snap back, dislodging the disc below her fourth vertebra, slamming it against her spinal cord.
She lost the use of her legs, and regained partial use of her arms only after months of therapy.
Once she adapted to her new life, she tried tennis — one of the few sports she hadn’t mastered before the accident. Ironically, her first taste of freedom came to her in the form of a new wheelchair.
“I got out of my big clunky chair and into a [much lighter] tennis wheelchair, and I couldn’t believe how much freedom I had instantly. That’s partly what sold me on tennis right away — that sense of freedom.”
Aside from the light, super-man- ageable chair, Hunter said she considers her athletic cohorts, on and off the courts, instrumental to her success.
“My learning curve in managing my disability day to day has skyrocketed because now all of a sudden I’m around people who are similar — some of whom have been in chairs for years and years. My quality of life has shot way up.”
But her status on the court gets a little complicated. Her body’s inability to sweat — related to her injury — makes competing in the sun more than dangerous. It could be fatal.
Without a way for her body to cool itself down, she’s forced to play in the quad division. The International Tennis Federation rules that since many quads can’t sweat, their competitions must be held first thing in the morning or in late afternoon.
That condition also sets her against the all-male quad division’s competitors. Briton Peter Norfolk and American David Wagner are the two to beat, as they “flip-flop between first and second place,” she said.
Women competing against men is a rare thing in sport, and Wagner and Norfolk each present a different challenge. Norfolk is a more traditional player, but Wagner, currently ranked No. 1 in the world, is much more fun to play with, she said.
Typically, when Wagner wins, Hunter comes within a hair’s breadth of victory. In Athens in 2004, she lost in the quarter-finals to the eventual gold medallist.
Without the strength of her male competitors, she’s got to rely on strategy to win.
“Of course, the nature of the sport definitely has a huge physical component, but the mental component is huge in this game,” said Hunter. “Whether you are quadriplegic or able-bodied, [men] are stronger. One of the challenges is figuring out a way to beat these guys with a different game plan.”
Paralympic tennis player Sarah Hunter was once a member of Canada’s national field lacrosse team.