|Wheelchair Tennis South Africa: Flying the flag for disabled athletes|
|Written by Doug Rodger|
|Thursday, 02 December 2010 15:06|
With World Disability Day being marked on 3 December, Women Inc. spoke to Karen Losch, MD of the non-profit organisation Wheelchair Tennis South Africa. WTSA is one of the most highly-rated wheelchair tennis associations in the world, and their mission is to empower physically disabled individuals by providing them with skills and assisting them to be independent.
Wheelchair tennis has been around since the mid-1970's, when American wheelchair athlete Jeff Minnenbraker and Brad Parks, an athlete who became a paraplegic after a skiing accident, met and pioneered the development of the sport in the USA. The game requires no modifications to existing courts or equipment, and can be played between wheelchair athletes and able-bodied players. The only difference is that wheelchair-bound athletes are allowed two bounces of the ball, as opposed to the one bounce allowed to able-bodied players. This ease of integration is one of the reasons that wheelchair tennis is one of the fastest-growing wheelchair sports in the world.
Fast forward to the present day, and wheelchair tennis is an internationally recognised sport, with its own leagues, tours and rankings. WTSA was founded in 2005, and is making a difference to the lives of local athletes with physical disabilities.
Karen Losch has been the MD of WTSA since 2008. She joined WTSA after working for AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals and Rudy Project, and eyewear and sunglass manufacturer. Women Inc. asked Karen a few questions about her involvement with WTSA.
What motivated you to get involved with WTSA?
I have always loved tennis, and been an active player. Holger Losch was approached about 12 years ago to assist in formalising the sport and the association, and has therefore always been involved. It seemed like a dream job for me- I could work with tennis, a love of mine, and add value to people’s lives. I have never looked back, and love every moment.
What have been some of the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects of working with athletes with disabilities?
The most rewarding aspects that come to mind are that we are able to make a significant difference in the lives of individuals. We can help them to maintain independence, allow them to see a world and a country they could never afford to see without us, and teach them a new skill.
The challenges are to find accessible accommodation and transport when there are a few people travelling together. Accommodation advertised as wheelchair-friendly has at best 1-2 disabled rooms
Is there any age limit for being involved with wheelchair tennis?
No. We encourage players of any age to participate, and generally structure our events on ability, not age.
Is there any kind of assistance available for disabled people from disadvantaged backgrounds who show potential as athletes?
We are fortunate to have Airports Company South Africa as a game sponsor, and the assistance from NLDTF (National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund) so we are able to offer support to our players. We provide coaching for interested individuals, as long as there are 4-plus individuals in a group, and individual coaching for the top players. Through our sponsorship from NLDTF, we are also able to provide chairs for communal use at our centres and as the players improve, and are at a national level, they are given chairs of their own.
The majority of our players and centres are from disadvantaged areas. They are supported as beginners and through the process as they improve.
Who are WTSA's current star players?
Women – Kgothatso Montjane – presently number 1 in SA, and number 18 in the world.
Both Lucas and Kgothatso have been as high as 13 in the world in 2009.
What have the highlights of 2010 been for WTSA?
Winning a place to compete in the 2011 World Team Cup for Men; more players on the world ranking than any other country; growing the number of participants to over 350 in the country; opening more than 40 active centres; having Mabel Mankgele selected for the World Junior Masters to be played in Feb 2011 (only the top 4 junior females in world are selected); and
How is the SA wheelchair tennis community internationally rated?
We have been held up as a successful programme, and one to emulate. We have been one of the most successful development programmes in the country, and have been asked to assist to introduce Wheelchair Tennis to Zimbabwe and other sub Saharan countries.
Are there any exciting developments for WTSA happening in the near future that you would like the public to know about?
We are hosting 6 international events in 2011, including the Airports Company South Africa SA Open, and the World Team Cup 2011. We will also be opening a minimum of 10 new centres in the first part of the year, and are introducing a young star event and clinic to fast track the development of those players under 15 years of age.