ten­nis

Sarah Hunter found free­dom on the court

Vancouver Sun - - Sports - BY MARY FRANCES HILL VAN­COU­VER SUN

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.”

IAN LIND­SAY/VAN­COU­VER SUN

Par­a­lympic ten­nis player Sarah Hunter was once a mem­ber of Canada’s na­tional field lacrosse team.

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