The wheel deal

Wheelchair tennis returns to Taco Bell Western Slope Open

Kriss Burwell, left, returns a shot Saturday during a wheelchair singles match at the Taco Bell Western Slope Open at the Elliott Tennis Center. For the first time since 2009, wheelchair players are back competing at Taco Bell. Burwell will play for the title today.

Seth Richey returns a shot from Akiji Koiwalakai during a match Saturday morning at the Elliott Tennis Center during the Taco Bell Western Slope Open. There were 12 players competing in the wheelchair division this year and more were expected, but several players from Utah were unable to attend.

Akiji Koiwalakai returns a shot from Seth Richey during a match Saturday morning at the Elliott Tennis Center during the Taco Bell Western Slope Open. There were 12 players competing in the wheelchair division this year and more were expected, but several players from Utah were unable to attend.

The players participating in the wheelchair division of the 58th-annual Taco Bell Western Slope Open tennis tournament still have fond memories of Lillian Brawer.

“She took care of us,” Kriss Burwell of Grand Junction said.

“We really miss her,” Seth Richey of Grand Junction added.

“She really took care of the wheelchair community,” tournament founder Lena Elliott said.

Brawer left her mark on the summertime tennis tournament and when she died in 2009, the wheelchair division went away, too.

Prior to her death, the tournament drew players from around the nation and sometimes brackets were packed with dozens of competitors.

Thanks in part to Bill Trubey of Golden, the executive director of the Colorado Wheelchair Tennis Foundation, the tournament’s wheelchair division has been resurrected at Taco Bell. With a field of 12 players from the Front Range and the Western Slope, Trubey hopes this year’s tournament will bring new life to a once-proud showcase of players.

“I would love nothing more than to see this tournament get back to where it was,” he said.

The field for this year’s tournament wasn’t quite what Trubey had hoped for after some players from Utah were unable to attend. Still, Trubey, along with Elliott, said the turnout after such a long hiatus leaves lots of optimism that the bracket could return the quality of players it once had.

“I mean, we held the national championships here,” said Elliott, noting how Grand Junction’s centralized location between Salt Lake City and Denver leaves lots of room for growth.

Wheelchair tennis is a form of tennis adapted for those who have lower-body disabilities. The size of courts, balls, and rackets are the same. Players use specially designed wheelchairs and rules allow the ball to bounce up to two times, and the second bounce may also occur outside the court. It’s an official Paralympic sport and is also played at Grand Slam tournaments.

It wasn’t until Brawer approached Elliott, however, that it was included at Taco Bell.

Elliott said Brawer’s sister, Doris Denker of Aspen, was a very active person in the Roaring Fork Valley who needed care after she had a heart attack and stroke while playing tennis. Brawer relocated to Grand Junction from New York with her husband, Jerry, in 1993 to help care for Denker.

Brawer, Elliott said, was so moved by the community that she not only decided to permanently stay in Grand Junction, but reached out to Elliott to add wheelchair tennis to the Taco Bell Western Slope Open.

“She said to me, ‘I’ll give you thousands and thousands of dollars to do this,’ to which I said, ‘Whatever,’ ” Elliott said. “It wasn’t but a few weeks after that when I got a call from a woman at the hospital and heard her say to me, ‘You’d better get over here. This woman is serious.’ “

Elliott agreed and had dinner with the Brawers. After a long discussion and the glowing remarks Lillian made about the community and the tennis tournament, Lillian handed Elliott a check for $10,000 to get the wheelchair tennis tournament started.

“I told her I’d be happy to add wheelchair tennis to the tournament, but I wasn’t about to take her money,” Elliott said.

So Lillian Brawer put her money toward other things. She paid for meals for the wheelchair players. She paid for their hotel rooms. She paid for their equipment. She even paid for local players to travel to tournaments outside Grand Junction. Because of all that Brawer did, Burwell said the wheelchair tournament drew players from states like Idaho, Florida and Texas.

Brawer was also the head of the Doris Denker Wheelchair Tennis Sports Foundation and organized summer tennis clinics for handicapped, wheelchair and Special Olympic athletes. When Brawer died, Jerry moved back to New York and the wheelchair tournament at Taco Bell went away.

Until January, when Trubey contacted Elliott and the pair discussed reintroducing the wheelchair division to the Taco Bell Western Slope Open. Elliott was all in, as were many players from the Grand Valley, who didn’t have to travel to either Salt Lake City or Denver to play in a competitive tournament.

“I get to maybe one or two tournaments a year, and even that’s hard to do because of money and funding,” the 39-year-old Richey said. “It’s nice to be able to have a tournament to play in where you don’t have to drive so far.”

Burwell and Richey made the most of the reintroduction of the wheelchair division to the tournament, with both posting 6-0, 6-2 semifinal-round singles victories Saturday morning to advance to today’s championship. The wheelchair doubles tournament also wraps up today, with Richey and Burwell playing in the final against Jason Arneson of Golden and Colby Kortum of Thornton.

And even though the wheelchair portion of the tournament has a long way to go before it returns to the peak it reached, memories of what Brawer did years ago still ring true.

“She was such a kind person,” Elliott said. “What she was able to do for them was truly amazing.”


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