SPORTS

ACCIDENTAL REBEL

Top tennis player and new mom Sarah Hunter keeps defying the odds

CHARLIE GILLIS September 24 2007
SPORTS

ACCIDENTAL REBEL

Top tennis player and new mom Sarah Hunter keeps defying the odds

CHARLIE GILLIS September 24 2007

ACCIDENTAL REBEL

SPORTS

Top tennis player and new mom Sarah Hunter keeps defying the odds

CHARLIE GILLIS

The serve isn’t landing just as she pleases, but Sarah Hunter can only swing a racket so long before the soupy air of southern Ontario begins to take its toll. It’s not yet 11 a.m., and the clay at the Hamilton Tennis Club—site of the Canadian Open Wheelchair Tennis Tournament—has gone soft from heat and moisture, grabbing the tires of Hunter’s chair as she pivots to make her shots. A hot breeze has come up, pushing her strokes back in her face, and sucking energy from her by the minute. Now, as serve after serve finds the net and rolls back toward her, she mutters an obscenity and pushes her way forward to gather the stray balls.

The normally clean-spoken Hunter is the best Canadian tennis player you’ve never heard of. At 42, she is ranked first in the country and fourth in the world in quadriplegic wheelchair tennis, a visually fascinating event in which the few women who play compete against the men. It was Hunter who seven years ago fought for the right to take on the guys, and this year she’s battled them formidably, claiming a title at the Australian Open, reaching the finals a couple of weeks ago at the Gateway Classic in St. Louis, and qualifying for this week’s U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., where she became the first woman to play in the “quad” division. If all goes well, she’ll compete for a medal next summer at the Olympics in Beijing.

Quadriplegic tennis, as you might imagine, has its complications. “My sweat glands don’t work,” Hunter says matter-of-factly, dousing herself with a water spritzer during a muchneeded break. “A lot of my upper body muscles don’t function either, so fatigue becomes a factor more quickly than with able-bodied athletes.” Her leg muscles go into spasm after long periods bent in her wheelchair, and a few days ago she broke a toe without knowing it. The purple digit is an inexplicable source of humour between Hunter and her same-sex partner, Janet Petras. But it’s also a reminder: sometimes she doesn’t even know she’s in pain.

To all of this you can add motherhood. Last March, Hunter became one of a handful of

quadriplegic women in Canada to carry a child to term. Kate, a sandy-haired 16-monthold, has spent the last year travelling the international tennis circuit with Hunter and Petras, from Australia to the Czech Republic. You might think it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball when your baby is toddling around the sidelines, but Hunter finds the effect salutary. “I can be having the worst match ever,” she says. “But when I come off the court and see Kate, everything is good again.”

SOME PEOPLE set out to change the world. Others are accidental activists—men and women who redraw the socially prescribed limits to accommodate their own ambitions. For Hunter, clawing her way to the top of wheelchair tennis is the latest chapter in a long career as an athletic gatecrasher. Since she was old enough to lace up cleats, she has been breaking the gender barrier in maleoriented sports, playing in her brother’s soccer league; becoming the first girl in her hometown of White Rock, B.C., to play Little League baseball; officiating Junior B men’s hockey in the Lower Mainland. Before the injury that claimed the use of her legs, she

tended goal for Canada’s national women’s field lacrosse team.

Suddenly, on Jan. 23, 1997, everything changed. “7:57 p.m.,” she says, smiling. “Not that I keep track.” It was late in the first period of a women’s hockey game at the North Surrey Recreation Centre, and Hunter was curling back through her own zone to pick up the puck. Next thing, she was waking up at Royal Columbia Hospital in New Westminster. “I can remember teeny bits from when I was down on the ice, but there’s a three-week span where I remember almost nothing,” she says. What she can picture she can’t entirely trust: a lot may be stuff people later told her—she doesn’t know.

Some of her former teammates contended that she’d been pushed from behind into the boards; other witnesses figured her skate caught a rut in the ice. Whatever the cause, the rearward snap of her neck dislodged the disc below her fourth vertebra and slammed it against her spinal cord. Her legs no longer functioned, and she would face months of therapy to recover even partial use of her arms. The devastating prognosis was made worse by a stunning inertia on the part of the

hockey fraternity. Insurance added up to a paltry $750, and somehow the story escaped the notice of the local sports press, which helped keep the heat off the authorities.

Hunter has never tried to make a cause of her injury. “I’m the sort of person who steers away from public controversy,” she says. But with so little in the way of support or even sympathy, she felt no qualms about suing the Canadian Hockey Association, along with the Pacific Coast Amateur Hockey Association, settling out of court for an undisclosed amount. Meantime, she faced the task of putting herself back together—physically and psychologically. She’d lost a job she treasured, working with young offenders. She could resume her studies at Simon Fraser University, but the sporting life that had meant so much to

‘QUAD’ TENNIS HAS ITS COMPLICATIONS. ‘MY SWEAT GLANDS DON’T WORK.’

her seemed a long-forgotten dream. When an official from B.C. Wheelchair Sports called in the summer of1999 to tell her about Bridging the Gap, a program meant to encourage disabled people to become active, she could scarcely keep herself from scoffing down the phone line. She told the caller no thanks.

Over the following weeks, though, her curiosity and her competitive instincts got the best of her. One morning in September she found herself sitting beside the door of a high school gymnasium, watching others sampling customized equipment and trying sports she’d played well as an able-bodied athlete. When organizers finally coaxed her past the threshold and slipped her into a tennis wheelchair, she was sold. “I don’t think I even tried another sport.”

That day, her sister Sue later remarked, “the sparkle came back into Sarah’s eyes.” Three months later in Boca Raton, Fla., Hunter attended her first competitive event, playing in the female paraplegic division. Dick Yerg, a retired sportswriter who handled press relations at the meet, immediately saw natural athletic ability in the sunny young woman from B.C. “She has a very, very strong servebetter than some of the wheelchair players

who are not in the quadriplegic category,” says Yerg, now a close friend. But she was plainly in the wrong event. While male quad players (those with some disability in at least three limbs) were grouped in their own division within the International Tennis Federation, there were too few female quadriplegics playing to create a women’s quad division. So Hunter—accustomed to getting her way in such cases—waged a brief, quiet campaign with the help of Tennis Canada to be able to play the men. By the end of 2000, she’d crashed through that gate, too. Today she counts among four women in the top 10 of quad tennis players.

IT’S HARD, as a result, to discern who benefits most from whom: Hunter or tennis? It

was through her adopted sport, after all, that she met Petras—a quiet champion of Hunter who happens to be director of Tennis Canada’s wheelchair division. And it was her success at tennis, says Hunter, that in part gave her the courage to embark on motherhood.

The decision was no whim. Both Hunter and Petras had always wanted a child, and having decided to proceed, the pair attended a Vancouver sperm bank thinking it was just

a matter of legalities and science. But Petras failed to become pregnant after several attempts, so they began researching the possibility of Hunter carrying the child. “Everyone in our families wondered whether I might be at risk,” says Hunter. “I had to go to multiple doctors’ appointments to convince everybody there was no extra danger.” Consultations with a neurologist eased some of those concerns; each year, on average, one quadriplegic woman gives birth in Canada, and the damage to her autonomic nervous system would not affect gestation. Still, there were anxious moments before and even during the birth. When her anaesthetic took longer than normal to wear off following the Caesarean, Hunter recalls being seized by irrational fears that the operation had aggravated her injury. “I wondered, what if I’m back to square one—only now I have a brand new baby to care for?” she says. “But it turned out okay. When I got upstairs to see Kate and Janet, everything was perfect.” Now, 16 months down the line, that newfound sense of peace seems to be feeding back into her game. In the past few weeks, she has elevated her play in hopes of catching top-ranked David Wagner of the U.S. And Hunter’s coach, for one, figures Kate might have something to do with her mother’s success. “Sarah’s always had to work on detaching herself emotionally from her results,” says Severine Tamborero, national coach of wheelchair tennis for Tennis Canada. “I think caring for Kate has given her something more important to think about between matches. It’s given her perspective.”

Of course, sometimes perspective demands that she get her serve right—whatever the vagaries of wind and clay. So after a short rest, Hunter retapes her hand for a few final hits before her first match at the Canadian Open. She’ll go on to win the tournament, defeating Bryan Barton, an American who was seeded just behind her, in straight sets. And between matches, she will roll about the clubhouse with Kate, setting out meals and changing diapers. The schedule gets hectic at times, Hunter allows. “Would I like to live the life I have today without physical disabilities? Of course,” she says. “But I wouldn’t trade what I have now for the life I had 10 years ago—not for anything.” M