For Hawaii native Shelby Baron, playing for the University of Alabama’s wheelchair tennis team has not always been in her plans.
The senior first picked up a racket because she wanted to play with her older brother and cousin. She began to take an interest in the sport, but she had little opportunities to play with other people in wheelchairs.
In 2010, she attended a junior camp in California for wheelchair sports that changed everything. There she met Mackenzie Soldan, a mentor during the camp, who began telling Baron about the then up-and-coming wheelchair tennis team she was a part of at the University of Alabama.
”At that time, it was the first time I had met juniors that had spina bifida [her condition] that played tennis,” Baron said. “… It was really overwhelming to me, but it was one of the best experiences I ever had.”
When it came time to choose a college, she chose to stay home and attend the University of Hawaii and continue competing as an individual. While she enjoyed attending Hawaii, she still longed to be a part of a team.
During a tournament in Hilton Head, South Carolina the September of her sophomore year, Baron’s play made an impression on Brent Hardin, the adaptive athletics director at Alabama. Because of her play, Hardin offered her a scholarship to play wheelchair tennis and Baron found a new home with the Crimson Tide.
The team, officially started in 2014, was first made up of players who also played basketball like Soldan. Baron, the first full tennis player, was a welcome site for the program.
“It was really nice to get a full tennis player and someone of her caliber here to really give the program credibility,” Soldan said. “I think it was really important. Now our program is growing even more and I think she played a pivotal role in that.”
Since arriving in Tuscaloosa two years ago, Baron has risen in the international ranks to No. 51 in singles play, with only three American women ahead of her according to itftennis.com. She also won a combined six singles and doubles championships.
As important as on-court success is, Baron wants the sport to continue to grow. That was behind her excitement for the team recently winning the Outstanding Recreational/Athletic Organization of the Year and the David L. Phelps Organization of the Year awards.
The awards came as an acknowledgment of the team’s service with things like helping at the West Alabama Food Bank and starting community wheelchair tennis lessons.
“It shows we’re more than just an athletic program,” Baron said. “We can do other things off the court. … We can be involved in the community.”
Baron has enjoyed her time at the University thus far, both on and off the court, but the player who started so she could play with her brother and cousin still eyes bigger things. Currently, she is training for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. With the level of growth her coach, Evan Enquist, has witnessed in Baron, he’s confident she will continue excelling on the court.
“I think there’s been a switch in the past year and now I think she is a lot more driven,” Enquist said. “She’s just ready. Ready to compete, to make a name for herself and she wants to [be] on the court and win.”
Source:: The Crimson White Sports