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Hickson, wheelchair tennis head for Hall of Fame

ERICK STUDENICKA

Acceptance.

That’s all wheelchair athletes request.

And with her induction into the Northern Nevada Tennis Association Hall of Fame upcoming on June 12, Truckee resident Bonni Sue Hickson believes that the tennis world has finally accepted the sport of wheelchair tennis.

“It’s a real turning point – that the able-bodied tennis world is going to recognize a person from wheelchair tennis,” said Hickson. “It’s almost like validation for wheelchair tennis. Finally, (tennis officials) have recognized wheelchair tennis as a bona-fide sport.”

Northern Nevada Tennis Association Executive Director Pam Dice said Hickson is the first person associated with wheelchair tennis to be inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame. And although Hickson is a former player, Dice said Hickson’s induction is based primarily on her work as the founder and director of two of the nation’s largest wheelchair tennis tournaments.

“We felt that Bonni Sue was an outstanding candidate for the Hall of Fame,” Dice said. “Although she’s interested in all types of tennis, the award is for her founding and directing the wheelchair tournaments in our area. She has single-handedly brought awareness of the sport to many other people.”

Hickson, 47, competed for five years on the National Foundation of Wheelchair Tennis tour and reached a No. 3 national ranking in doubles competition with partner Patty Rollinson in the mid-1980s, but she is best known for her work as the director of the annual Farwest Regional Wheelchair Tennis Championships in Reno (which opens June 12) and the Tahoe Donner International Wheelchair Tennis Sectional Championships at Tahoe Donner Tennis Club in Truckee. Both tournaments are considered to be “Top-20” wheelchair tennis tournaments in the world.

Hickson said she first thought about becoming a tournament director as multiple sclerosis began reducing her playing ability in the late 1980s. She was a player/director for the Tahoe Donner Tournament from 1985-90 before becoming its full-time director.

“I began to see the MS progress and thought ‘Why not become a director?'” Hickson said. “I had seen how others had put on tournaments and thought there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a wheelchair tennis tournament at Tahoe Donner.”

Although Hickson played volleyball and basketball in her youth, she didn’t consider herself a serious athlete until she was in her mid-30s, some 15 years after she first contracted multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease which affects the central nervous system and whose symptoms include fatigue and loss of coordination, balance and mobility.

“I was a late bloomer – I didn’t become a real athlete until I was 35,” Hickson said. “I had never even heard of wheelchair tennis until my physical therapist, who himself was in a wheelchair, introduced me to the sport in 1984. From there, I worked my way up to ‘open’ tennis.” Hickson has also won numerous medals in disabled alpine skiing.

According to Hickson, the sport of wheelchair tennis has grown rapidly since its inception in 1978. It is now the the fastest growing wheelchair sport in the world, with more than 4,000 participants in 48 countries. Hickson anticipates more than 155 athletes will compete in Reno June 12-15, while more than 100 will play at Tahoe Donner in October.

“Wheelchair tennis is a full-spectrum sport,” Hickson said. “There are 14 different divisions at each tournament, which accommodates any person’s ability to function depending on the level of injury or illness.”

While the world of tennis has been slow in recognizing wheelchair tennis (the United States Tennis Association is expected to fully recognize the sport in 1998), Hickson said Tahoe Donner Tennis Club was one of the first clubs to fully accept wheelchair players.

“The Tahoe Donner Tennis Club has been the leader in showing how to make a club inclusive for all players and make its site accessible for everyone,” Hickson said.

Although she is a registered nurse and volunteers as a MS peer counselor, Hickson said directing the tournaments takes up the majority of her time.

“Putting on a successful, high quality tournament is a year-round activity that takes the whole community’s effort, because it takes a core of volunteers each year to make the tournament succeed,” Hickson said. “The tournaments are designed so that the games would go on, even if I wasn’t able to be at the tournaments.”

Hickson knows the combination of the Hall of Fame Banquet, the opening day of the Farwest Tournament and her continuing battle with multiple sclerosis will leave her fatigued on June 12. But with the opportunity to bring recognition to the sport of wheelchair tennis, there’s no way she’ll miss any of the activities.

“Promoting wheelchair tennis gives me incredible energy,” Hickson said. “The sport gives people the opportunity to have freedom on the court.”

Hall of Fame banquet

Hickson, along with Benno Baumann, will be inducted into the Northern Nevada Tennis Association Hall of Fame June 12 at the association’s gala banquet at the Silver Legacy Resort Casino in Reno. The banquet begins at 6 p.m. For information on the banquet, call 702-831-2181.

Farwest tennis

Hickson will once again direct the Farwest Regional Wheelchair Tennis Championships in Reno June 12-15. This tournament is considered one of the top in the nation and players from the United States, Australia, Canada, Nigeria, Great Britain, Switzerland and Columbia are scheduled to compete. In recognition of the tournament, Nevada Gov. Bob Miller has declared June 9-15 as “Nevada Wheelchair Tennis Week.”

Tournament play takes place from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily with final matches to be played at Washoe County Courts and the consolation matches at Plumas Tennis Center. Admission to the tournament is free.

For information, call 587-2108.


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