Wheelchair Tennis: Serving up a New Era of Adaptive Sports at Boise State

Alec Simeone | The Arbiter

Appleton Tennis Courts at Boise State University was the setting of a great day of tennis on a sunny Saturday morning. 

It wasn’t just any tennis though, the Idaho Wheelchair Tennis Association (IWTA) hosted the second annual Wheelchair Tennis Open on Sept. 2, and it saw nearly triple the competitors than the previous year.

Players from as close as Oregon and as far as Alabama came to this weekend’s tournament, which is a part of the Boise State Tennis and Pickleball Festival. 

This weekend’s tournament is only a small chapter in a larger story brewing at Boise State.

The IWTA has its sights set on a move to bring wheelchair tennis, along with other adaptive sports to Boise State Athletics as a mainstay. 

Their goal is to partner with Boise State’s kinesiology department to acquire funding and make the program official as a collegiate team.

“My biggest priorities are getting the program set up and getting the funding set up so we can get students here,” IWTA vice president Steve Baxter, said. “We’ve got a meeting with the kinesiology department and we’re just ironing out some of the details.”

Baxter is also the program director for the IWTA, and organizes events such as clinics they put on where they teach wheelchair tennis.

Schools like the University of Alabama also run their adapted sports programs through the kinesiology department, which has resulted in their winning of seven straight national championships.

Alabama’s no.19 ranked Nathan Hunter competed in Saturday’s tournament. 

In the past three years, adaptive sports have grown exponentially. Wheelchair tennis programs around the country have grown from just five to over 60 teams, according to Baxter.

There are no school funded teams currently in the northwest, meaning there’s an ongoing recruitment race in the region.

“If we can be that school that’s offering scholarships … there is no wheelchair tennis team anywhere in the northwest,” Baxter said. “So if we’re the first one, we have a huge area to recruit from and so that’s going to be an advantage.”

Boise State’s athletic program could soon be a top recruitment program for adaptive sports, which in turn would touch the lives of hundreds of student-athletes.

“I did three summers of able bodied tennis … with my physical disability, I just couldn’t keep up with the kids anymore,” Hunter said. “Once I got in the chair, it was liberating. It completely changed my whole aspect of life and I kind of fell in love with the sport ever since.”

Offering adaptive sports allows athletes to continue and progress their athletic careers, as well as teach personal independence.

“When a wheelchair person does athletics, it helps promote and teach independence as well. When you’re traveling, you have to get outside of your comfort zone of just being at home, and kinda adapt to different situations,” said IWTA Secretary Tommy Schroeder. “Most likely when you get a little older you’re not going to be able to travel with your parents. They might not be able to go with you, so what they do for you at home, you have to learn to do that on your own.”

Traveling remains one of the biggest challenges for the team. All expenses are paid out of the players’ pockets.

Partnering with the kinesiology department would allow Boise State students like junior educational studies major, Ally Mauck, to take their talents around the country to compete.

“Sports give me a competitive avenue to do stuff and meet new people,” Mauck said. “Especially with adaptive sports, there’s a big community, we’re all friends off the court, but when we’re competing, we’re competing. There’s always that fun aspect of it … we’re all cheering each other on, even though we’ll be competing against each other later on.” 

IWTA founder, Randy Corbett, says that traveling is where players get better. Playing in tournaments around the nation gets players like Hunter nationally ranked.

Corbett was one of four members who represented the Broncos at the wheelchair tennis national championship for the first time in school history last spring. 

The coaches and athletes at Saturday’s tournament believe that Boise State athletics could be a real power in the country for adaptive sports and IWTA president, Kevin Falk, says that the first step is simply getting visibility for the team.

Falk is also an adjunct professor for the engineering department at Boise State. He’s gotten coaches from Boise State’s tennis team to play tournaments with the IWTA, and wants to get Andy Avalos, and Dr. Tromp to come play what’s known as “up/down tennis”. 

These types of events are what helps recruitment and getting the word out to donors and future players.

“That’s our goal. That’s my goal here now. That’s what I, more than being an athlete, is just to help promote and keep this going for kids,” Falk said. “Just tons of opportunities, just because you’re in a chair doesn’t mean you have to stop living.”

Up next for the Idaho Wheelchair Tennis association is a ProjectKix event called fill the truck, where every shoe donated raises money for disabled athletes.

Alec Simeone | The Arbiter

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