Baron aims for Rio Paralympics

Baron aims for Rio Paralympics

Shelby Baron, a junior majoring in communicative disorders, accepted a scholarship to play wheelchair tennis at the University, and transferred from the University of Hawaii this past August. CW | Lindsey Leonard

Laura Testino

Baron, a junior majoring in communicative disorders, accepted a scholarship to play wheelchair tennis at the University, and transferred from the University of Hawaii this past August. Baron began playing sports in elementary school, but few people were participating in adapted athletics programs in Hawaii, she said. Soon after she started to play wheelchair tennis, the program 

“So I was really the only active player on the island,” Baron said. “I played tennis with other people in wheelchairs for the first time in 2010.”

Baron was born with spina bifida, meaning her spinal cord didn’t connect completely. Baron’s case allowed her to walk with crutches and stand until she was introduced to a wheelchair in the third grade, she said. She began using the wheelchair and playing sports simultaneously.

Baron first started by playing basketball, but finding enough players for a game became difficult. With tennis, she could play athletes who weren’t in wheelchairs. Baron’s cousin and older brother also played tennis, so the three would practice together.

“I just really wanted to beat my brother at something,” she said.

When playing wheelchair tennis, the ball may bounce twice before it is hit, but no other rules of the game are changed. The chair Baron uses for tennis is light and therefore easier to maneuver and pivot into position than the chair she uses when not in practice.

Training sessions with Charlie Rivera, head coach of wheelchair tennis, consist of hitting the ball on the court and dissecting the techniques behind each stroke. Recently, Baron has been working on the mechanics of her backhand, focusing on adding more topspin and power, Rivera said.

“[Baron] is improving a lot. I’ve been to three tournaments so far, and she has a really good game. She has a very amazing game,” Rivera said. “We’re just working on getting her more strength.”

Rivera started playing tennis at age 10, began teaching the sport five years later and has spent more than eight years teaching wheelchair tennis.

“[The girls on the wheelchair tennis team] are having to learn what I call a ‘seventh sense,’” he said. “The anticipation of where they hit the ball in a certain way, and how that ball may come back.”

In addition to practicing for one or two hours nearly four or five times each week, Baron attends a strengthening program to gain power in her arms and core. Although Baron has seen successes in her athletic career, she hasn’t even scratched the surface of her potential, Rivera said.

“I just really enjoy tennis,” Baron said. “It gives me something to do. I guess I could read or watch TV. But tennis gets me out there, and creates something that I can be competitive in.”

Brent Hardin, the director of Adapted Athletics, initiated Baron’s move to Alabama after he saw her play in the tournament in Hilton Head, South Carolina. When looking at potential players, Hardin said he looks for students who would be a good fit for the University, can succeed academically and can be competitive in the rankings, among other factors.

Wheelchair tennis has recently made the move to be one of three high performance sports within the Alabama Adapted Athletics program, meaning the expectations for the team are increasing, coaches have been hired and scholarships are available, Hardin said. He felt that Baron was a great fit for the emerging program, he said.

“[Baron] is a great person and is someone we would want to represent the University,” he said.

Mackenzie Soldan, a senior majoring in advertising, plays on the wheelchair basketball team and the wheelchair tennis team with Baron. Soldan said she anticipates great growth for the wheelchair tennis program and has enjoyed having Baron as part of the team.

“[Baron] is a great player, and I believe she’s a big up-and-comer in the international tennis scene,” Soldan said. “She’s definitely one to watch out for, and she’s also a great person who is dedicated to the sport.”

Baron’s previous performance in tournaments has placed her in the rankings compiled by the International Tennis Federation. According to the current ITF Wheelchair Tennis Rankings, Baron is within the top 100 players.

Maude Jacques, a senior majoring in criminal justice, has played doubles with Baron in a tournament, and said she recalled a few times that Baron was able to save the ball at the last second. Jacques traveled to the University from Canada to play wheelchair basketball and has recently picked up wheelchair tennis as well.

Jacques and Baron have been roommates for tournaments, and their chemistry on the court has coincided with a friendship off the court, Jacques said. The two have been able to bond over their new experiences with the South, she said.

One of the most noticeable differences for the two teammates was the athletic culture in Tuscaloosa. Their hometowns in Canada and Hawaii didn’t have anything similar to football tailgates on the quad, they said.

“Sports here, I just really like it,” Jacques said. “It’s really family.”

Jacques said she sees the same type of camaraderie in her sports teams as she does in other athletic teams at the University. She said she has enjoyed being Baron’s teammate, and is looking forward to seeing the tennis team become more official.

“I know that [Baron] probably wants to go to Rio, and I just wish her the best really, and I hope that she does get better by being here,” she said. “I’m really happy to be her teammate. I think she’s awesome.”

Baron said she does have hopes to see her training take her to the Paralympic Games, if not in Rio in 2016, then in Tokyo in 2020. She said she would also like to return to Hawaii and help grow the wheelchair tennis program. Academically, Baron has the goal of becoming a speech pathologist, an interest sparked by frequent hospital visits when she was younger.

“I’m really thankful for all they have done for me,” Baron said. “So I just want to give back in my own way.”