Watching wheelchair tennis inspires Shelby Baron.
The 17-year-old Hawaiian stresses just how fortunate she feels as she watches players overcome their disabilities. She can talk about the topic for hours, and it can be easy to get lost in the conversation with her humble, perceptive thoughts.
It can be easier yet to forget Baron has been in a wheelchair herself since she was nine years old.
The wheelchair tennis players are Baron's peers, and she's joined them this week on Hilton Head Island for the annual Fall Southern PTR Wheelchair Championships.
"Being out here makes me realize how lucky I am," Baron said. "There's a lot of people out here that have it a lot worse than I do, and they inspire me when I see what they can do."
Baron has spina bifida, a birth defect in which the backbone does not properly close around the spinal cord.
By the third grade, Baron needed the assistance of a wheelchair. She still possesses the ability to walk short distances, though it can be exhausting. She often walks to her high school classes because her old school in Honolulu isn't wheelchair friendly.
Baron discovered wheelchair tennis several years ago, but cost prevented her from traveling to tournaments. Instead, she played in an able-bodied Junior Team Tennis league. Her team reached the national championships, and she went undefeated in her singles matches.
Less than a year ago, she began traveling the world for wheelchair tennis tournaments. She won a junior event in Baton Rouge, La., in which she had to defeat three boys. She later represented her country in the World Team Cup in South Africa.
"One of the coolest experiences of my life," she said. "There were so many good players. I just felt lucky to be there with them."
Baron said she enjoys the competition tennis brings -- and she shows her competitive side with the occasional racket slam on the court.
But even greater to her is the unexpected camaraderie wheelchair tennis has brought.
"I can relate to everyone, and that's a comfortable feeling," Baron said. "I can talk to one of the players, and after five minutes, we feel like friends."
Baron arrived early on Hilton Head Island this week, and on the event's opening day, she was already making friends with some of the other players. She will play her final singles match in the junior draw today at 8:30 a.m. at Chaplin Park Tennis Center. With a victory, she wins the round robin draw.
It may be one of the final tournaments for which she travels in her career. Baron already has lined up career goals that include a stop at a four-year university in California to study speech pathology, which won't allow much time for tennis.
But she is leaving the door open for the University of Arizona -- it has the top wheelchair tennis program in the nation.
"I could see myself playing tennis (in college)," Baron said. "I love tennis and I love meeting everyone at these tournaments, and I love the life lessons I learn just by being out here.
"I see all these players doing things I never thought I could do. Then I ask myself, 'Why not? If they can do it, why can't I?' "
FALL SOUTHERN PTR WHEELCHAIR CHAMPIONSHIPS
Finals, Chaplin Park Tennis Center
Men's open: Gustavo Fernandez vs. Gordon Reid, 10:30 a.m.
Men's A: Jeff Kegler def. Matt Farmen (Saturday)
Men's B: David Eads vs. Rodney Spence, 8:30 a.m.
Men's C: Victor Vaughn vs. Steve O'Brein, 10:30 a.m.
Quad open: Bryan Barten vs. Lucas Sithole, 8:30 a.m.
Women's open: Lucy Shuker vs. TBA, 10:30 a.m.
Women's A: Stacey Rice won round robin