Wheelchair tennis has been the backbone of Kaitlyn Verfuerth’s life for most of the past 16 years. The sport has taken her around the world, and this week it has her in Rio de Janeiro, where she’s competing in her third Paralympic Games.
Verfuerth, who turns 31 on Monday, opens these Games this afternoon, when she and doubles partner Dana Mathewson take on Brazil’s Rejane Candida and Natalia Mayara. Her singles quest begins against top-seeded Jiske Griffioen of the Netherlands on Saturday.
Adaptive sports have been a major part of Verfuerth’s life since 1993, when an 18-wheeler hit the car she was riding in head-on and left her with L2 incomplete spinal cord injury.
Wheelchair tennis emerged as her sport of choice, and she’s thrived in the sport — competing in three of the four Grand Slams, as well as the 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games. But the Arizona resident leads a busy and full life that goes far beyond the tennis court.
Hear Verfuerth’s story, in her own words, as told to TeamUSA.org at the Team USA Media Summit last March in Los Angeles.
Verfuerth’s grandma introduced her to tennis at age 4. That foundation helped her pick up wheelchair tennis 10 years later.
“All the strokes are the exact same. The fundamentals, the technique is exactly the same. The only difference is instead of using our feet to get to the ball, and have that ball in that right spot where we want to hit it, we’re trying to use our chair.”
However, wheelchair basketball was her first adaptive sport, which she began one year after her injury. She even played with the U.S. team in 2013.
“I took a break (from tennis) because I had done two Paralympic Games in wheelchair tennis. My first love, when I first got injured, the sport I fell in love with, was wheelchair basketball. I had always wondered what it would be like to compete on a high level on that USA team. For me, I realized I just love playing a pickup game; I don't want to be at that level.”
Verfuerth has also tried wheelchair racing, but she decided it wasn’t for her.
“I loved it! It was a lot of fun, but man, my hands hurt. I don't know how Tatyana McFadden does it. My hands always had blisters.”
Originally from Port Washington, Wisconsin, just north of Milwaukee, Verfuerth attended Arizona on a scholarship to play wheelchair tennis. She’s lived in Flagstaff for the past four years, and loves it.
“Flagstaff reminds me so much of like Wisconsin or the Midwest. You still have the winter, you get snow, the only difference is the snow melts really fast; you don't have that super cold long winter where it goes on and on and on. Flagstaff is great, and I find that living in Arizona there’s so many people that move there from Wisconsin or Minneapolis or Michigan. It’s a popular place to go.”
When not playing tennis, Verfuerth can often be found at the Flagstaff self-serve yogurt shop, BTO Yogurt, she owns with her partner Greg Guerin. Her favorite flavor is cake batter, but don’t expect to find her gorging on the product.
“I did in the beginning when we first opened. We were there every day; it was like our baby, I didn't want to leave it. I ate it like breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mind you, you can’t do that and eat real food on top of it, because you’ll get huge.”
But she will let you come in and create your own flavor.
“One guy brought his date in on Valentines Day and made a flavor that they came up with. We actually use real ingredients, so if it’s peanut butter, we put a whole jar of peanut butter in. If it’s Oreos, we put a whole bunch of Oreos in and grind them up. We’ve made watermelon — we bought a real watermelon and made it fresh.
Among other things, Verfuerth also coaches the Flagstaff High School girls’ tennis team and serves on the Disability Awareness Commission for the city of Flagstaff. But she’s most passionate about her work with Over the Rainbow, a local nonprofit for children with disabilities.
“Basically what we do is we try to raise money and give scholarships to kids with different abilities. So for scholarships to go to school or money to get an adaptive wheelchair, or money to go to a camp, or something like that.”
When she wraps up her tennis career, Verfuerth plans to dedicate more time working with Over the Rainbow and similar organizations.
“Being able to help others, especially kids that have different abilities, to be able to give them that opportunity to get involved in sport or get involved in whatever it is that they want to get involved in, that’s really where my heart is, where my real passion is. Whenever I retire and decide not to play tennis anymore I will focus on that.”