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Local wheelchair tennis players return to U.S. Open thanks to unsolicited donations
They were regulars in the U.S. Open Wheelchair Championships.
Grand Junction natives Seth Ritchey and Kriss Burwell had sponsors and regularly qualified for U.S. Tennis Association events. But that was before they lost their sponsor and the national tournament was relocated.
“Our sponsor passed away, and it’s getting more and more expensive,” Ritchey said. “Our sponsorships went down the toilet kind of. I still get sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, but we’re talking $500–$600 a tournament (including travel).”
Ritchey and Burwell qualified again this year — Ritchey defeated Burwell for the Colorado A Division State Championship — but they decided they wouldn’t go to nationals because of the cost.
That’s when some able-bodied players in a local USTA men’s league got together and came up with enough money to send them to the tournament, which begins today at the Dwight Davis Tennis Center in St. Louis. The tournament continues through the weekend.
Jim Paregien and Shane Daniels, who play Burwell and Ritchey in an able-bodied USTA League, talked to other players about raising money for them.
“Everybody said the same thing: It’s a shame being invited to go and not be able to go,” Paregien said. “A lot jumped on the bandwagon quickly. We raised money within a week. Some gave up to $200. It was a very good effort.
“We had probably 18–20 guys kick in money. I was just amazed at the response. We raised a little more than $1,800.”
As a result, Ritchey and Burwell are going back to nationals for the first time since 2010. They begin play Thursday morning in the Men’s Singles A Division.
There are four skill divisions in wheelchair tennis — Open, A, B and C. The open division is the highest level; C is the beginning level.
The USTA formed an official wheelchair division in the mid-1990s.
“I was blown away by the generosity of those guys,” Burwell said. “We didn’t approach them or nothing about it. Jim was the main instigator. He sent out an email and got all this response.”
Burwell and Ritchey have played wheelchair tennis for more than 14 years, but they never touched a racket until they lost the use of their legs.
Ritchey, a 35-year-old paraplegic, started playing tennis 14 years ago when a woman who sponsored a wheelchair-tennis tournament convinced him to give it a try.
“There was a lady, Lillian Brauer, who passed away some years ago,” Ritchey said. “She was the one that pestered me and pestered me to try this wheelchair-tennis stuff. I finally had enough of her calling, and I got out and tried it out.”
Burwell, 57, started playing in the early 1990s after he lost the use of his legs in a drilling rig accident.
“John Davis saw me walking around with crutches one day when I didn’t have my prosthetic on,” Burwell said. “He asked me to start playing (wheelchair) basketball with the Black Canyon Posse. I started playing basketball with them in a tournament in Ogden (Utah). After the tournament, ‘It’s time for tennis,’ they said. I thought, ‘You can’t play tennis in a wheelchair.’ “
He was hooked the first time he played, despite the match taking three hours.
“I think it was the challenge of it and the individual part of it,” Burwell said. “I never really did like basketball. It was more of a free-for-all, wrestling match.”
Ritchey has won the U.S. Open C Division singles title, and Burwell has reached the A Division semifinals.
Ritchey recently won the National Public Parks tournament in the wheelchair division.
“It’s a tough sport,” Burwell said. “It really is. The physical part shuts down most people.”
“You’re pushing, thinking, hitting, looking where the other guy is at,” Ritchey said. “Most people want the ball to come to them. You’ve got to chase that sucker down and get it back.
“It’s one of the hardest wheelchair sports, if not the hardest.”
Ritchey and Burwell are simply glad they can have an opportunity to play in the U.S. Open again.