Student Represents Team USA in Paralympic Games

Shelby Baron
Shelby Baron

From the October 2016 Desktop News | Shelby Baron was helping unload cars during freshman move-in day at The University of Alabama when she got a call from Team USA wheelchair tennis coach Dan James.

It was Aug. 12, her 22nd birthday, so Baron thought James was calling to wish her a happy birthday.

“He said, ‘You want the good news or bad news?’” Baron said. “I was confused, but I took the bad news first. He said, ‘We didn’t order you any clothes … the good news is you’re going to Rio.’”

Lack of pre-ordered team gear aside, Baron, a communicative disorders major and wheelchair tennis player at UA, learned that day that she’d compete in her first Paralympic Games, which began Sept. 7 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The timing of the news made for a perfect birthday present, but it was also a fitting reward for a summer’s worth of hard work. Baron, of Honolulu, Hawaii, opted to spend her summer on campus, where she took classes and received extra instruction from UA wheelchair tennis coach Evan Enquist.

Though the cut-offs for the national team were in May, Baron was keen to improve her game ahead of her senior season at UA. And there was always the chance that the withdrawal of another athlete could open a spot for her, so training throughout the summer could have potentially benefitted her on both fronts.

“My ranking wasn’t what I wanted it to be, so I stayed because I wanted to devote a solid few months to practice every day and work on my game,” Baron said. “The summer is a good time to do it—there’s not as much homework, and there’s more time in the weight room. I always wanted to stay and train.”

Baron is one of seven current UA players or coaches who competed in Rio. Fifteen former UA student-athletes and coaches also competed. More than 20 current and former players and coaches competed in the 2012 Games in London, including three who medaled.

“To have over 20 current and former students and coaches at the Paralympics in Rio is a source of pride for the University and our program,” said Brent Hardin, director of UA Adapted Athletics. “The University of Alabama has a large footprint in Rio, and our program is well-known worldwide because of all the success of our student athletes on an international level.”

Baron said that when she learned she’d made the U.S. National Team, she called her family in Hawaii, though, with the time difference, it was roughly 4 a.m. in her home state. Her mother answered the phone and was understandably groggy, but they shared a longer, more jubilant phone call later that day. Since then, the congratulatory messages have continued pouring in.

Normally, an athlete would receive a hometown send-off before heading to the world’s greatest athletic tournament, but Baron continued to train in Tuscaloosa before flying to Rio Sept. 1.

In a blog Baron kept while competing in Rio, she wrote, “As soon as I rolled onto the court, I immediately knew the crowd was not going to be in our favor. The stands were full, and a third of the fans were French. They had several banners and flags that encased the court. Before we even started, they screamed and blew their air horns. My partner, Emmy Kaiser, and I were definitely the underdogs as we took to the court.”

Regardless, three hours and 18 minutes later Baron and her partner went on to win the match two sets to one.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Baron wrote. “I won my first match at the Paralympics. I have never been prouder to wear the letters ‘USA’ on my back.”

Though Baron was later eliminated by the No. 1 seed from the Netherlands, she says she played her heart out with no regrets.

“I have learned so much from playing several top-10 athletes in the world,” she says, “and I hope to improve so that I can compete in Tokyo.”