REDLANDS >> With her bright smile and infectious zest for life, Alyssa Montenegro can stand out in a crowd wherever she goes.
There are also times when the 12-year-old Redlands seventh grader makes a singular impression on a more superficial level. She recently spent a week at Bulldog Adidas Tennis Camp 2016 at the University of Redlands from July 11-15, where she was the only player to use a wheelchair.
But competing alongside able-bodied athletes is not intimidating for Montenegro. She will gladly accept such a challenge if it means a chance to spend time in court and meet new people.
âIt was really fun and I met another friend there,â Montenegro said. âPlaying with able-bodied people makes it a bit more difficult, but it’s still quite fun. “
Montenegro survived a battle with cancer at the age of 2, but was paralyzed in his right leg and partially paralyzed in his left leg a year later due to an infection in his spine.
Nonetheless, she grew up with a love for the sport and always found a way to get into the game, whether that be by competing in the Kid’s Race at the Redlands Bicycle Classic on a three-wheeled hand bike or by perfecting it. his hard court skills as a student in the Redlands Youth Tennis (RYT) program.
Throughout these efforts, Montenegro competed exclusively with able-bodied children and always found it to be a rewarding experience.
Using a sports chair with slanted wheels for increased mobility for tennis, Montenegro benefits from the wheelchair rules, being able to do up to two bounces for a return, while their standing opponents follow standard tennis rules.
Over the years, Montenegro has improved in his lateral movements and the strength of his arms to the point that his skills have almost caught up with his level of fierce determination.
She also enjoys competing against other wheelchair athletes, although these opportunities don’t present themselves as much as she would like.
She just attended the USTA / ITF International Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camp at the Marguerite Tennis Pavilion in Mission Viejo in June for the second year in a row, where she was among the half-dozen young players. ‘States and countries to receive professional training and play in an official tournament.
Alyssa’s parents have been supportive of her hobbies, but with changes in their work schedules recently, Alyssa has been unable to attend her RYT session for her age group for the past several months.
It has also been difficult to find year-round wheelchair tennis programs or wheelchair players in her area that Alyssa can connect with, which makes annual camp events like the USTA event all the more so. more critical for its development.
âShe loved it again, but we heard that it was possible that it might or might not come back (to Mission Viejo),â Alyssa’s mother, Anna Montenegro, said of the USTA camp. “We told her that no matter where he is, we’ll save and fly wherever we need to go, so she can go.”
Dan James, the USTA’s national head coach for wheelchair tennis, led efforts to bring the camp to the United States and personally waived the 12-year age limit for Alyssa to attend. attends last year. He confirmed that as the USTA strives to consolidate its resources and move its base of operations to a massive new complex in Orlando, the future of the Mission Viejo event is “on hold.”
The Uniglo International Tennis Federation’s Wheelchair Tennis Tour hosts more than 170 separate tournaments on six continents each year, with more than $ 2 million in prize money. Wheelchair tennis is a Paralympic sport and the USTA and ITF offer international ranking systems and Grand Slam events.
But without the ability to play in a wheelchair as a junior, how will players like Alyssa gain a foothold in the sport as adults? According to James, he is taking action at the community level to fill the gaps that the USTA’s national governance cannot fill.
âWe obviously don’t have enough staff in wheelchair tennis to help run every local program, but hopefully we are able to provide the information to enable someone with a passion to help out. develop an individual youth program or just a local wheelchair program, âJames mentioned. âWe need to enter a culture where it’s not just tennis professionals, it’s not just the people who work in the industry, but parents and friends can help develop recruiting and opportunities. To develop a tennis program, you need a village of people who want to see it succeed. “
The USTA website (www.usta.com) offers tips and information on starting a basic wheelchair tennis program at the local volunteer level. There is only one Inland Empire group listed in the USTA’s national directory, but the Upland-based Inland Valley WC Tennis Association does not have an up-to-date phone number or website. .
âI think that would be a good thing,â Alyssa said of being matched with other wheelchair players. âI think I’m doing pretty well in tennis. I like it because it’s a pretty fun sport to play.
Even without tennis, Montenegro has plenty to concentrate on. She graduated from sixth grade with honors and plays the piano and trumpet. And she’s always looking for a new sport. Recently, she tried her hand at sledge hockey, a version of ice hockey where players use their sticks to both push themselves onto the ice and hit the puck.
Anna says the family is considering a crowdfunding campaign to buy Alyssa a sled.
âI want to be on a team or something because it’s really fun,â Alyssa said.
Alyssa bonded with 12-year-old Conor Warshawsky at Camp Bulldog Adidas which led to a recent punching session at Ford Park in Redlands, where the Vacaville resident has family. James advises that, whether against standing or wheelchair players, just being on the pitch is a huge advantage for Alyssa.
âTennis is tennis. Every chance you have to hit a ball, no matter who it is against, is a chance to learn and improve, âsaid James. âThere is socialization, independence and life skills that are taught. Using sport as a vehicle to advance (one’s) future is fantastic. “