In sports, winning one comeback-of-the-year award is rare enough.
Being bestowed such an honour means not only did some misfortune – an injury, usually – come your way, but also that the person in question was strong enough to battle through it, emerging better-than-ever on the other side.
And such a feat is easier said than done.
Unless, of course, you are White Rock wheelchair tennis star Sarah Hunter, who not only has one such award, but now two, after being honoured by Sport BC with the Harry Jerome Comeback Award.
“I don’t know if it’s ever happened before, winning two of them,” she laughed. “I don’t think too many people probably do, but it’s a great honour. I was really surprised.”
Hunter will receive the award March 5 at Sport BC’s annual gala in Vancouver.
The 48-year-old athlete – who is an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’ after being injured in a 1997 hockey accident – received her first Harry Jerome award in 2001, after recovering from her injuries and taking up wheelchair tennis. She is now one of the world’s top-ranked players, and is ranked fourth in the world in quad singles play, and third in doubles.
But despite her success, she very nearly called it a career three years ago after suffering severe shoulder and hand injuries during a mixed-doubles match in South Africa, in which she crashed into her partner, Adrian Dielman.
“Adrian was fine. But it was his 350-pound power chair that hit me,” explained Hunter, who partially tore three ligaments in her left shoulder and also dislocated it.
The injury caused Hunter to miss the remainder of the 2011 season and most of 2012.
And though the road back was grueling – “I basically lived at physio,” she said – the full-time athlete also got to spend an extended period of time at home with her family, including her seven-year-old daughter, Kate.
“When I’m competing in a full season, I’m on the road basically nine months of the year, and my partner travels for work a lot, too, so there’s a lot of travel in this family,” Hunter said.
“So I took full advantage of being at home, and it was really nice. I absolutely made the most of my time.”
But while time at home was great, she admits that her competitiveness would sometimes get the best of her.
During the end of her rehab, for example, she pushed herself a little too much and ended up injuring herself again, which set her back a few more months.
“I’m very, very competitive. You can go back into the files of the Peace Arch News, and other papers, and read the old stories, and you see how competitive I am,” she laughed.
That competitive spirit is also the reason she ultimately decided against retirement.
“I thought about it, but I just knew that I didn’t want to retire because of an injury. When I retire, I want to go out on my own terms, because I want to. I don’t want to be forced out,” she said.
“I’d thought about retiring before the injury. And if I hadn’t gotten hurt, I think I’d probably have retired by now, so there’s a certain amount of irony in that.”
Not only is Hunter back on the court – she’s currently training in North Vancouver in preparation for the upcoming season, which gets going in March – she actually feels that she is playing better than before her time away.
“It’s my most successful season in about five years, at least, and it surprised me a little bit, only because I’m one of the older players on the tour now.
“But I didn’t want to just ‘sort of’ come back, or come back and just be able to play. I wanted to come back and be able to compete at the highest level.”
Her achievements have been noticed by those in the wheelchair sports community, too. Last month, the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association named her the athlete of the year for 2013.
“I didn’t expect that award, either. It’s been a pretty good month for me,” she said.
With an eye towards staying involved in the sport when she eventually does decide to retire, Hunter – who served as a torchbearer prior to the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver – has also spent time as an ambassador of sorts for the wheelchair tennis, and wheelchair sports in general.
This week, she is travelling to Brazil with the International Tennis Federation to help run a series of clinics for people with disabilities, in an attempt to get more people involved.
“I just want to show them that you can be a quadriplegic, and there’s still a lot of opportunities out there, and it’s a lot of fun,” she said.
“This wheelchair is just another piece of equipment, like a bat or a ball. It’s not a limitation, it’s an opportunity.”