Wheelchair tennis loses first 4-year player

Jared Greenleaf

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When one considers the word “pioneer,” it usually refers to the first among their kind. For senior Jessica Sporte of the Grand Valley State University wheelchair tennis team, the word fits perfectly.

After coming to the program four years ago, Sporte’s career at GVSU will come to a saddening end when she graduates this May.

Sporte, who was diagnosed with cancer in her leg at two months old, will be the first player to have played all four years for the program.

“It’s been phenomenal,” said GVSU organizational head coach Lynn Bender, who has developed an eight-year relationship with Sporte stemming from her time playing in junior programs. “When she was 18 and coming to Grand Valley, she was one of our freshman and she was so dedicated. It’s been really neat to see her grow as a student and taking on responsibilities and guiding her team through four years.”

Throughout her career, Sporte has traveled to Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Arizona while competing in tournaments. She said the one thing she has enjoyed through her journey is ability to meet new people on each trip.

“It’s so great with the friendships that you make,” she said. “It was really cool to meet and bond with other college athletes that are just like you.”

Bender said Sporte has been instrumental in the program’s development since she has been at GVSU.

“She’s been a huge asset to help promote the program around not just West Michigan but around the state and the Midwest,” Bender said. “She’s always willing to step up, and if I need a speaker to go to a school or even speak at one of the classes at GVSU, she’s always there. She just wants to promote the game and try not to be any different.”

With graduation approaching, Sporte has her eyes set on the future, which includes getting to the Paralympics, an international multi-sport event for athletes with physical disabilities. The Paralympics will be held in London in 2012 and will begin one week after the Summer Olympics are finished.

“That’s definitely my ultimate dream,” Sporte said. “I think it would be just one of the most amazing experiences in the world. The opportunity to go higher and farther in wheelchair tennis is so much higher than able-bodied athletics. The fact that it’s actually within my reach is amazing and it would be sweet to travel and represent the U.S.A.”

Sporte will graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation.

Bender said it will be a bittersweet moment as she will lose Sporte’s organizational skills.

“She’s been my right-hand man honestly,” Bender said. “She’s been a huge asset to keeping us on track and what the school needs on behalf of her part. Just being organized as a student as well as her energy and enthusiasm. That’s what’s going to take her into her career and she’s going to be outstanding, but now we’re going to have to find some people to replace her.”

GVSU wheelchair tennis coach John VandenBerg, who has known Sporte for about two years, said he will miss several values about her heading forward.

“She’s been inspirational for us and she’s such a hard-worker,” he said. “I will miss her constant positive attitude and willingness to try new things. She’s really motivated to learn the game of tennis and she gets along with all the players. It’s just been fun.”

VanderBerg mentioned one more thing he will miss after Sporte’s departure.

“Her fore-hand,” he said. “I’ll miss her fore-hand for sure.”

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