FITNESS PROFILE | BETH ARNOULT-RITTHALER
Courting the Games
By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Catherine E. Toth
Beth Arnoult-Ritthaler could have given up.
The thought did cross her mind after a 1991 accident on an all-terrain vehicle in Las Vegas shattered her vertebrae and left her unable to move her legs.
The once-active cheerleader and runner now needed a wheelchair to get around.
"You get to where you don't think life's worth it," said Arnoult-Ritthaler, 40, who lives with her husband and son in Pa'ia, Maui. "You can't see life at the end of the tunnel. But the key is to hold on. It gets better."
It certainly has for her.
Several years after the accident — and with some urging from a colleague — Arnoult-Ritthaler tried her hand at tennis, a sport she had never played before.
It wasn't long after her first match in 1998 — one she lost, 6-0, 6-0 — that Arnoult-Ritthaler began marching up the International Tennis Federation rankings.
She's now the top-ranked women's singles and doubles wheelchair player in the nation, holding the 11th spot worldwide.
In her seven years on the professional tour, Arnoult-Ritthaler has played in such prestigious tournaments as the U.S. Open, French Open, British Open and the Sydney International.
As a participant this week in the 2006 Invacare World Team Cup in Brasilia, Brazil, she's competing against wheelchair tennis players from 32 countries. (She's been invited to participate on the team since 2001.)
Her main goal now: making the cut to represent the U.S. at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China.
"It's just such a sense of freedom to be on the court," Arnoult-Ritthaler said. "And now that there's continual progression, I want to be in the top 5 (worldwide), then the top 1. ... I really want to make it to the Olympics. That's my driving force right now."
Arnoult-Ritthaler has become an ambassador of the sport, a motivating voice for those with disabilities, and proof that anything is possible.
"Beth Arnoult-Ritthaler has continued to give back to the sport of tennis throughout her entire career, whether it be within her own community or throughout her efforts in promoting wheelchair tennis," said Dan James, national manager of the United States Tennis Association's Wheelchair Tennis program.
"Her hunger, and love for the game, has driven her to continually improve, becoming one of the world's top players, and has allowed her to represent both her country and the sport of wheelchair tennis throughout the globe."
Founded in 1976, wheelchair tennis has become one of the fastest-growing wheelchair sports in the world, according to the International Tennis Federation.
The only rule that's different from that of able-bodied tennis: the ball is allowed to bounce twice on one side of the court.
Other than that, the sport is the same. It doesn't require any modifications to the court dimension, racket or ball.
"Tennis is one of the only wheelchair sports where you can go head-to-head with an able-bodied player on equal ground," said Arnoult-Ritthaler, who hits balls with her able-bodied husband, Joey. "You're out there playing and having fun and it's the same. You're just like everyone else."
Her passion for tennis has spurred her to bring the sport to other physically challenged athletes.
Last summer she started a wheelchair tennis program on Maui to provide the opportunity for those in wheelchairs to learn a new sport, make new friends and, most importantly, to get active.
"You can keep in shape and yet there's a social aspect (to tennis), too," she said. "You get a sense of achievement, of accomplishing goals. ... I love the fact that I can go back to Maui and give back and make a difference in someone else's life."
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Workout habits: Arnoult-Ritthaler trains on the tennis court at least six days a week for about two hours a day. She also hits the weights once a week for about an hour and hand-cycles twice a week for about two hours.
When and why she started working out: Growing up on a farm in Iowa, Arnoult-Ritthaler was always active. In junior high, she took up cheerleading and finished her senior year as team captain. She also ran track, waterskiied and drove snowmobiles. But all that ended when her L1 vertebra shattered in an ATV accident in 1991. She lost most of the mobility in both legs. She picked up tennis in 1997 and began competing in 1998.
Good foods/bad foods: Though she grew up on potatoes and cheese, Arnoult-Ritthaler now sticks to protein-rich meats and veggies. Her bad food: chocolate.
Biggest motivator: Arnoult-Ritthaler pushes herself to get stronger not just to elevate her competition on the court, but to be as independent as possible. "I just want to live an active life and keep my upper body strong," she said. "Because the stronger I am, the more independent I am."
Biggest challenge: "My biggest challenge is managing time and making the finances work," she said.
What saves her sanity: Reading. Arnoult-Ritthaler reads three to four books, usually Christian fiction, on every road trip. "I do it to calm myself," she said, "to get my mind off tennis."
Next challenge: To qualify for the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China. She just missed the cut in 2004. "That's the way the ball bounces," she quipped.
Advice for those in the same wheelchair: "I'd tell them the best thing to do is to do something," Arnoult-Ritthaler said. "I've met so many people whose families want to push them or help them. And instead, they need to be doing it themselves. The only way to be more independent is to be stronger. And the stronger and more independent you are, the more self-confident you'll be."
Reach Catherine E. Toth at email@example.com.