USTA Wheelchair Camp
an Ace for Juniors
Erin Maher | August 5, 2018
Balls were bouncing in Birmingham, Ala., in late July, as 22 young junior wheelchair tennis players descended upon the tennis courts at the Lakeshore Foundation for the USTA/ITF Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camp of the Americas, from July 31 - August 4.
Founded in 1996, the junior camp, first held in Coronado, Calif., was started in the hopes to help bolster junior wheelchair participation and to help inspire and train the next generation of wheelchair tennis players.
In the early 2000’s, the ITF established a series of four Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camps globally to grow the game at the grassroots and 18 and under demographics. The host sites were: Europe, Africa, Asia (Pan-Pacific) and the Americas.
In 2004, the United States hosted the first camp at the Lakeshore Foundation, and it has since been held in other locations.ADVERTISEMENT
This year, the camp hosted 22 campers, ages 12 to 18 years old, who represented five countries throughout North, South and Central America. The camp emphasizes fundamentals in stroke production, live ball drills and match tactics. At the conclusion of the five-day camp, junior players vied for ranking points in an ITF sponsored junior tournament.
“I keep returning to the camp because it’s fun,” said camper Henry Reyes from Longbeach, Calif., who attended his third wheelchair camp this summer. “I want to learn more and how to get better at tennis and meet new people.”
Since its inception, the USTA/ITF Junior Camp of the Americas has fostered some of the greatest wheelchair talents on the circuit currently, including current Team USA World Cup members Chris Herman and Conner Stroud, and Paralympians Shelby Baron and Mackenzie Soldan.
“Junior camp was the launching pad to my career,” said Soldan. “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.”
While the players’ time is spent predominantly on the court, the camp aims to foster each athlete holistically.
The campers were treated to an athlete panel, featuring Soldan, former professional wheelchair tennis player Karin Korb and quad rugby Paralympian Bob Lujano. The panelists discussed their experience playing wheelchair sports, sharing insights and answering any questions players had.
“Whatever you want,” Korb told the campers, “you can make happen.”
Besides the panel, the athletes were exposed to other wheelchair sports, including wheelchair rugby, wheelchair badminton and wheelchair basketball. One afternoon was also spent learning and understanding cross-training at the Lakeshore Foundation facilities. Campers broke a sweat in a hand crank class, learned proper form and technique in strength training and got their “ohm” on in seated yoga.
Time was designated off the court for fun as well. Campers went swimming one afternoon and took in a night baseball game watching the Birmingham Barons, a minor league baseball team.
“I’m excited about the baseball game,” said camper Faith Aversano the night of the. “Not to talk about tennis or baseball. But just to hang out with my new friends.”
The camp not only helps athletes improve their tennis game, but gives them the unique opportunity of spending a week with other children with disabilities, cultivating an atmosphere of innate understanding, empathy and the ability to connect with others who have faced similar situations.
“What is truly magical and the most important aspect to this camp is the dynamic of having so many children under the age of 18, with disabilities, coming together to learn about sport, themselves and the experiences of others and their trials,” said Jason Harnett, USTA National Manager for Wheelchair Tennis and Head Coach of Team USA. “It allows the kids to relax in an environment where everyone understands one another and not much needs to be said about anything except tennis and the enjoyable, camp experiences that come with being a teenager.”
Even the campers who hailed from South America and could not speak English did not let the language barrier impede them from getting in on the laughter, fun and friendship shared between campers.
“The great thing about this camp is it’s just a tennis camp, not a camp for kids with disabilities," said Steve Manley, wheelchair tennis coach from Vancouver, Canada. "This camp is especially important for the kids here who may be the only disabled person in their community. I’ve been coming to this camp for eight years now, and it’s the highlight of my year. I love bringing kids down here."
On the final night of the camp, the whole camp group came together for a final banquet, celebrating their week of hard work, and spending one last night together.
As the coaches handed out awards and dinner was served, camper Jose Giron, of Guatemala, sat amongst other campers. He raised his hand, and with a massive smile on his face, pointed at each camper sitting around him and exclaimed, “My friend! My friend! My friend!”
Hugs, phone numbers and social media profiles were exchanged, and, "see you next year!", was heard in abundance.
Their week together may be over, but for the campers, the sport of tennis will continue to be apart of their lives year-round, thanks to the USTA/ITF Junior Camp of the Americas.
Pictured Above: Coaches and players at the Lakeshore Foundation in Birmingham, Ala., at the 2018 USTA/ITF Junior Tennis Camp of the Americas.