Maui woman brings world-class tennis game to O'ahu
By Brian McInnis
Special to the Advertiser
When an off-road accident in 1991 shattered vertebrae in Beth Arnoult's spine and took away nearly all movement in her legs, the last thing she wanted to do was think about playing sports again.
Today, Arnoult is the top ranked U.S. women's singles player in the International Tennis Federation the governing group of the Wheelchair Tennis Tour and is also 11th-ranked worldwide.
The Kula, Maui, resident, takes her game inter-island this week for the Hawai'i Pacific Open Wheelchair Championships the first ITF event held in the state at the Central O'ahu Regional Park in Waipahu.
While she is thriving in the game now, acceptance was not easy for her in the years following the All Terrain Vehicle crash outside of Las Vegas, then her home. Arnoult did extensive rehabbing to try to walk again.
"I didn't want to have anything to do with wheelchair sports," said Arnoult, 39, a native of Iowa. "Playing a wheelchair sport meant I was admitting I was going to stay in the chair."
She changed her mind in 1997, when the City of Las Vegas Parks & Recreation put on a free wheelchair tennis clinic. She hadn't even played the sport before her accident, having done cheerleading and track in high school
"I realized if anyone was going to walk again it was people who play sports, because their attitude on life was more positive," Arnoult said. "I was really poor at (tennis), but fell it love with the activity, just being active and doing something."
She kept with it, and entered her first ITF event in 1998, just to see how she stacked up. She lost her first match, 6-0, 6-0, but came away with the impression that success was something attainable. In 1999, she was a regular on the tour.
She's also now top-ranked in U.S. doubles and 14th-ranked worldwide.
The ITF rulebook is identical to that of able-bodied tennis, except the ball is allowed to bounce twice on one side of the court before a point is awarded to a player. The court dimensions are the same, but a ball's second bounce is allowed to land outside the lines.
The players' chairs are also much different than that of a standard wheelchair. Sleek and angular, they're built for maximum speed and maneuverability. There's even an additional wheel on the back so players can lean back far for serves and lobs.
"Most people can't even imagine somebody in a wheelchair playing tennis," Arnoult said with a chuckle. "Most people imagine somebody in a hospital clunker chair trying to push a ball around. It's far from that."
By being completely strapped in, players can use their bodies to juke their wheels in an assortment of ways Arnoult describes as "being one with the chair."
The U.S. Open just concluded last Sunday in San Diego, where Arnoult won the consolation bracket in singles and the mixed doubles title with partner Rich Julian.
Her husband, Joey, and 8-year-old son, Jacques, help her train when she's back home, and often travel with her when she flies around the world for tournaments. While the prize money per tournament isn't much the biggest offer around $5,000, and the purse for this week's tournament at CORP is $3,000 it's just enough to cover Arnoult's travel expenses and enable her to keep doing what she loves.
She now puts on her own beginner's wheelchair tennis clinics every Saturday with the Maui County Parks and Recreation, and helps about five people every week. If she can't make it because of a tour date, she always has someone else there to fill in.
"It's truly a passion ... of keeping physically fit where you can be good enough to be a difference in somebody else's life,"
Arnoult said. "Whether it be able-bodied workers who are in awe of what you can do, or other people in wheelchairs who don't do much activity on their own and realize, 'gee, that is something I could maybe do.' "
Looking back, she doesn't feel bitterness about the accident or what could have been.
"I've lived a very blessed life," she said. "I'm very grateful."