Olympian, all-American, coach, community advocate or sports executive. Whatever they go by, the alumni featured here have taken very different paths to fulfill their dreams.
Whether it was overcoming physical obstacles to pursue a love of competition or finding success first as players then leveraging that talent into successful careers or doing whatever it took to land a dream job, the things these alumni have in common are a passion for sports and the determination to succeed.
By Erin Teruya ’93 Kinney
When it mattered most, Paralympian Shelby Baron ’12 dug deep and pulled out the best athletic performance of her life. It was day one of the wheelchair tennis competition at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, and Baron and doubles partner Emmy Kaiser were playing a team from France.
Kaiser was USA’s top-ranked player, which meant the French were hitting to Baron. “It was really up to me,” she remembers. The first set was close, but Team USA lost 6 – 7. “Then something hit me,” Baron recalls, “and I realized I knew what to do to make it better.”
The match lasted a grueling three hours and 18 minutes – the longest Baron had ever played. “My arm was dead. It was dark. We had the longest rallies. It was brutal.” But Baron and Kaiser were victorious, winning the match 6-7, 7-5, 6-4.
Just one month before, competing at the Paralympic Games wasn’t even a possibility. Team USA had applied for a wild card for Baron, but it had been denied. When a German player dropped out because of health problems, suddenly Baron was in. She competed in the women’s singles and doubles competitions.
“I found out on Aug. 12 – my birthday,” said Baron. “I left for Rio on the first (of September).” The opening ceremony was exactly as she dreamed it would be. “I was there with all these amazing athletes. We were at the same venue as Serena Williams, and they treated us the same way,” says Baron. “People were crowding around waiting to interview me. I was wearing the USA uniform.”
Her Olympic experience also included a chance to visit the White House with 600 other American athletes and meet President Barack Obama ’79. As she nervously waited in the reception line, Baron says she knew she had to tell the president that she went to Punahou, too.
“He shakes my hand, and I said, ‘I graduated from Punahou,’” recalls Baron. “His face changed a little bit, he threw up a shaka, and said, ‘Howzit. Tell your family that I said hello.’”
Baron was born with spina bifida, a condition that makes her legs too weak to support her. She used crutches as a young child. But when she was in third grade at Noelani Elementary School, a PE teacher contacted a specialist, and Baron was introduced to a wheelchair and a basketball coach. Around that time, her older brother, Casey, started tennis lessons, which Baron would watch from the sidelines.
“Getting onto the court wasn’t all that hard for her, she already had some mobility skills,” remembers her coach, Madeleine Lum ’78 Dreith. “We took her on and integrated her into regular junior tennis. She was the only wheelchair tennis athlete in the junior league. Except for the fact that she got two bounces, we didn’t treat her any differently. We did that on purpose, and she stepped up to the plate. She’s amazing in that way.”
Baron hopes to compete at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Until then, she’s focusing on completing her degree in speech pathology at the University of Alabama, where she is the recipient of the school’s first wheelchair tennis scholarship.
“In other countries where disabled people are regarded as insignificant and incapable, sports give them the opportunity to prove themselves,” said Baron. “I am truly lucky to live in such an accepting country that accommodates disabilities.”