Team USA Members
Return to Camp Roots
Erin Maher | August 3, 2018
In the summer of 2010, a 15-year-old wheelchair tennis player named Shelby Baron traveled over 2,000 miles from Honolulu to Mission Viejo, Calif., to attend the USTA/ITF Junior Wheelchair Camp of the Americas, a preeminent junior wheelchair camp that teaches juniors the game of wheelchair tennis.
It was on those courts in California that another young wheelchair tennis player, Mackenzie Soldan, introduced herself to Baron. Soldan, a returning camper, was wearing a University of Alabama shirt and mentioned to Baron that she was going to attend Alabama in the fall on a basketball scholarship. Soldan proudly exclaimed that she would start a tennis program at the university and that Baron should join her there.
“Why would I ever go to Alabama?” Baron asked herself.
Sure enough, in 2014, Baron traded in the warm islands of Hawaii for the charm of the south as the University of Alabama’s first full-time wheelchair tennis player and a teammate of Soldan's.ADVERTISEMENT
In July, at the same camp that the two were first introduced, Baron and Soldan returned to the USTA/ITF Junior Camp, serving as coaches and introducing the sport they love to the next generation of wheelchair tennis players.
“Prior to attending camp, I had not played tennis with other junior wheelchair tennis players, and I didn't know what the Paralympics were or that I could even compete at a high level of wheelchair tennis,” said Baron. “From that point on, I started to train and compete.”
In the years since they first met on the tennis court, both athletes have amassed incredible resumes, due, in part, to the inspiration and skills learned at the USTA/ITF Junior Camp.
Baron has gone on to win three national titles with the Crimson Tide, and she also competed at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
Soldan, an accomplished basketball player as well as wheelchair tennis player, is a two-time Paralympian for the U.S. wheelchair basketball team, having attended the 2012 London Games, placing fourth, and the 2016 Rio Games, where her team won gold.
In 2014, Soldan set her sights on expanding her athletic prowess to tennis and, with the help of volunteers and administrators at the University of Alabama, fulfilled her decree to Baron and helped found Alabama’s first wheelchair tennis team.
Soldan also has a national title to her name and most recently became the first elite wheelchair athlete to train full time at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, Fla.
Throughout the five-day camp, Baron and Soldan provided on-court instruction to campers, shared lessons on sportsmanship and showed the junior campers the opportunities that are available to them playing high school tennis, collegiate tennis and beyond.
“I'm happy to be here as a positive role model for the younger generation,” said Baron. “I would like to show them that they are able to pursue a high level of competition through college tennis as well as even competing for Team USA.”
“Junior camp was the launching pad to my career,” said Soldan, who along with Baron, represented the U.S. at the World Cup, the ITF's premier wheelchair tennis event. “Before that, I would play with my family, with tennis pros at local clubs and then a couple of younger tennis tournaments that we found out existed. But that was really probably the spark of my career at that point.”
Besides the advice they share through their coaching, Baron and Soldan also serve as positive role models for the campers and are an inspiration to them as fellow wheelchair athletes.
“We, as able-bodied coaches, can only do so much,” said Jason Harnett, USTA National Manager for Wheelchair Tennis and Head Coach of Team USA. “But having Paralympians, like Shelby [Baron] and Mackenzie [Soldan], who are in wheelchairs, allows the campers to see not only where tennis can lead them, but also that they have someone in a similar circumstance who they can connect with.”
The connection that Baron and Soldan have with the campers is evident, with smiles abundant as they are eating lunch with the attendees and playing games with them, both on and off the court.
“Coach Shelby and Coach Mac are a lot of fun,” said junior camper Faith Aversano, who spent much of her week on court with Baron and Soldan. “It was easy to talk to them, and I learned a lot about tennis.”
Baron's and Soldan’s presence at the camp was not only educational for the campers but for the coaches, as well.
“I think it’s a really good experience for me because I want to learn how I can give back to kids, and I think coaching is one of the major ways I can do that,” said Soldan. “I’m here, and I’m learning from all these other experienced coaches and Shelby, as well, and learning how we can grow the game from where we are. So we’re both learning while we’re here, too.”
On the last afternoon of camp, Baron and Soldan sat side by side on the court, giving pointers and advice to the campers.
“This is the money point," Baron shouted to her campers on the verge of finishing a game. “This is for all the big bucks.”
Without hesitation, Soldan played off of Baron's encouraging cheer in a way that only a former fellow-camper-turned-teammate to now fellow coach could.
“You should all know there is actually no money you will win, whatsoever,” Soldan said.
Laughter erupted from the campers, and before the point was played out, smiles were shared between the coaches.
“It’s rewarding to see that pure joy and love for life and the sport at this camp," Soldan said, on why she enjoyed attending the camp.
It may be early in the the careers of Baron and Soldan, both in tennis and coaching, but one thing is for certain: together they are leading the next generation of wheelchair tennis players and giving back to the game that has given them so much.
Follow USTA wheelchair tennis action on Facebook at USTA Wheelchair Tennis.
Pictured above: Team USA members Shelby Baron (L) and Mackenzie Soldan (R) coaching at the 2018 USTA/ITF Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camp of the Americas.
Photo by: Erin Maher, USTA.com