LAKE CITY - While gymnast Shawn Johnson and hurdler Lolo Jones have captured Iowa's media spotlight for the Summer Olympics, Lake City native and tennis champion Beth (Schleisman) Arnoult is serving up her own quest for gold at the Summer Paralympic Games in Beijing.
"I've trained years for this, and I don't want to let people down", said Arnoult, 42, who plans to retire from the tennis tour after the Paralympic Games, which run from Sept. 6-17. "If I'm going to go out, I want to go out in style."
Arnoult, who was injured in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) accident at age 25 and started playing competitively at age 34, missed the 2004 Athens Paralympics by only one position. At that point, she was ready to retire but decided to give it one more try. As of June, Arnoult was ranked 11th internationally for singles and 13th for doubles, which places her as the top American singles and doubles player.
Before heading to Beijing, Arnoult returned to her hometown in late July to visit with countless friends, family members and former classmates who stopped by an open house at St. Mary's Catholic Church Educational Center in Lake City. ''Beth is a great person and a great athlete, and Lake City is so proud of her, said Betty Yunek, a long-time Lake City resident who attended the reception.
Tennis takes hold
Arnoult became paralyzed on March 30, 1991, when riding a four-wheeler in the sand dunes around Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The accident crushed a vertebra in Arnoult's back and compressed 90 percent of her spine. While medical professionals encouraged Arnoult to accept the fact that she would be in a wheelchair the rest of her life, she strove to walk for almost five years. As time passed, however, the middle school mathematics teacher began to realize she could get around a lot quicker in a wheelchair than walking with her braces.
Although Arnoult was a former high school track team member, cheerleader, swimming pool lifeguard and long-time water-skiing enthusiast, this 1988 Iowa State University graduate didn't want anything to do with wheelchair sports. ''I was still trying to work on my walking. In my mind, playing wheelchair sports was admitting that I was going to stay in a wheelchair the rest of my life.
That changed when another ''wheelie named Billie Eddins came to Arnoult's school once a week to teach adaptive physical education. Eddins was involved in the adaptive recreation programs provided by the City of Las Vegas and finally convinced Arnoult to try wheelchair tennis. ''Although I had basically no experience with tennis, I fell in love with the freedom of moving around on the court, swinging my arm to hit the ball and participating in an active sport, she said. ''I felt alive again.
Arnoult competes worldwide
Although the birth of Arnoult's son, Jacques, put her tennis activities on hold, a broadcast of the U.S. Open in the late 1990s rekindled her interest in the sport. After asking a coach to help her train, Arnoult contacted the United States Tennis Association. She received a wildcard into the open division of the last remaining tournament of the wheelchair tennis season-the Wheelchair Tennis U.S. Open in Irvine, Calif. ''As we drove to the tournament, my coach taught me how to keep score, because I had never played a full game or set before, said Arnoult, who lost 6-0, 6-0 to a girl from Germany. ''However, I came away from the experience knowing that this was a doable goal, to train and play competitively.
She went on tour full time in 1999, going back and forth between the A Division and the Open Division before playing consistently in the Open division starting in 2000. In addition to playing at tournaments across the United States, Arnoult has competed in many countries during the past 10 years, including Australia, France, Switzerland, Poland, New Zealand, Malaysia, South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands, Brazil, Canada and Italy.
''I usually travel three weeks to Australia in January and February, three weeks to Florida and Louisiana in March and April, five weeks to Europe in the June and July, two weeks to Michigan and Missouri in August and September, two weeks to South Carolina and California in October, and two weeks to Europe in November, said Arnoult, who sometimes travels with her son and tries to get back to Iowa twice a year, once in the summer and again at Christmas.
Today, a normal training schedule for this resident of Maui, Hawaii, includes six days a week on the tennis court for at least two hours, either with a coach or a scheduled practice match. She also heads to the gym three days a week for one hour with her trainer, while she completes a cardio workout on her own four days each week, either on a stationary hand bike or her hand cycle. When she was home in Lake City in late July, she headed to the walking path at Carnarvon for a long push (8 miles) in her wheelchair.
Making a difference
As Arnoult makes final preparations for the Paralympic Games, she will be joined in Beijing by her parents, Larry and Vi Schleisman, who farm near Lake City, along with other family members. Her long-time supporters understand the magnitude of Arnoult's exrermely demanding pursuit.
''Most of us dream of a new car, a new home or even a vacation in Hawaii, but not Beth, said Scott Sanchez, Arnoult's trainer. ''She had a dream to compete in the Olympics and has climbed the ladder of her sport to be among the very best in the world. Beth shows us that the most empowering moments in life are when we step out of the comfort zone and dare to dream.
Although she plans to retire from the tennis tour after the Paralympics, Arnoult looks forward to spending more time with her son, helping with mission work for her church, expanding her involvement on the local level with league tennis and Hawaiian outrigger canoe paddling, and assisting with the Mobility Project, which supplies wheelchairs to disabled people in third-world countries.
''I know the benefits of wheelchair tennis in my life, from physical fitness to self confidence, and I'm very excited to help make a difference in other peoples' lives, Arnoult said. ''God has taught me that He turns all things to good for those who believe.
You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby at firstname.lastname@example.org.