DEC 11, 2016
When you first meet Joanna Nieh, she is shy and quiet, with the polite demeanor you might expect from a young girl who’s grown up in a tight family on New York City’s Upper West Side. But once you get her on the tennis court, your perception of 14-year-old Nieh might change, as she becomes a tough competitor, with the hallmark attitude of a champion—which is exactly what she is. The wheelchair athlete is currently ranked No. 10 in the world for Juniors wheelchair tennis and has high hopes to keep climbing the ranks until she makes it all the way to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Nieh, who was born with spina bifida, can walk with the help of braces and crutches, but can’t compete in her favorite sport with these impediments, which is why she plays in a wheelchair. As a freshman at Manhattan’s Beacon High School, the determined teenager plays for the school’s tennis team and has won all her matches to date while helping the Blue Demons win two championships. If all that wasn’t impressive enough, Nieh also competes in wheelchair racing and sled hockey to help cross-train for her primary sport.Joanna Nieh and Beacon High School team after winning PSAL Championships
“Joanna started as a timid girl who came to the Sunday clinics on a weekly basis,” said Aki Takayama, who coaches Nieh at the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) in Flushing, N.Y. “Now her goal is set to get an [International Tennis Federation] ranking and play on the U.S. Paralympic team. As an athlete, she has grown exponentially and my hopes for her now is that she does get to play in the Paralympics 2020.”
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Jason Harnett, national manager of wheelchair tennis, has also been impressed by Nieh’s work ethic and growth as an athlete over the past few years. “The USTA national staff are thrilled to see the desire and exponential improvement by her in such a short period of time,” Harnett said. “She has an extremely supportive family environment and that will only be a huge plus for her going forward toward her Paralympic dreams.”
On a rare afternoon off from training, Nieh, along with her father, Jason, sat down with Excelle Sports to talk about her life as a wheelchair athlete, her goals for the future and the challenges of playing and competing in wheelchair tennis.Lifestyle Editor Kim Vandenberg and Joanna Nieh (Photo by Jason Nieh)
Excelle Sports: How did you first get involved in wheelchair tennis?
Joanna Nieh: I used to play tennis standing up and I really enjoyed it. So my mom looked for programs and found the one at the USTA. I started doing that when I was 10 years old. I started [sled] hockey around the same time and then, a few years later, I started wheelchair racing. My father used to play tennis so he sometimes plays with me. My brother also plays and my sister just kind of started.Joanna playing doubles (Photo by Jason Nieh)
ES: What’s Joanna’s competitive schedule like?
Jason Nieh: Every year the Junior Wheelchair Masters happens in France. Les Petits As [Junior Tennis World Cup] goes up to 14-years old for stand-up players and up to 18-years old for wheelchair athletes. For wheelchair girls, [the U.S. team] takes the top four [to France]—the top three, plus one wild card. So there is an outside chance the U.S. will put [Joanna] in for the wild card. We will see.
ES: If you go to France, will that be your first international trip?
Joanna: Does Canada count? I guess it will be my first big international tournament, yes.
ES: What are your goals in the sport? We were just talking about a possible trip to France, but do you have dreams of going further than that?
Joanna: Yes, maybe the Paralympics …
Jason: Her coach thinks that’s within reason. It is a good goal to shoot for. And Joanna does like sushi!
ES: Tell me a bit about your training at the USTA?
Joanna: I train with coach Aki. I started four years ago with her group lessons and a few years later I started taking private lessons with her. There are 10 to 15 people in the group sessions and I have private lessons with Aki on Friday and then the group lesson on Sunday.
Jason: There are local tournaments for stand-up players of all levels, so I was thinking about signing her up for a couple just to get some practice in. There aren’t very many wheelchair tennis tournaments in this area. The largest scholastic tournament in the country is the Mayor’s Cup, held at the Cary Leeds [Center for Tennis in the Bronx, N.Y.] and she actually did that for the first time this year in June.
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ES: What is the biggest obstacle for you in wheelchair tennis?
Joanna: Mobility. I still don’t know all the patterns or where to go sometimes.
Jason: I think the hardest part for stand-up players is that they are a lot faster. In wheelchair tennis, the main difference is that you can have two bounces instead of one and so the game may move a little bit slower. The hard part about the chair is getting it moving, turning and holding the tennis racket.
ES: Do you ever train without a racket or balls so you can focus solely on improving mobility?
Joanna: I do with my dad, but not with my coach. And sometimes I do at camps when we have more time.
Jason: There is a wheelchair tennis camp where they work on mobility-type drills for the wheelchair. She also plays in a group setting with stand-up kids. But when they work on foot work, it’s hard to translate that to the wheelchair.
ES: Do you do any cross training?
Joanna: My dad considers wheelchair racing [on a track or road] cross training. I do wheelchair racing for an hour three times a week.
ES: What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not playing tennis?
Joanna: I like to stay at home and play with my siblings. We like to play board games.Joanna with her siblings (Photo from Jason Nieh)
ES: Do you have a favorite memory from any of the competitions you’ve played?
Joanna: I don’t have a favorite memory—it’s all fun for me. Once a year, there is a tournament at the USTA in June. I wish there were more tournaments throughout the year.
Jason: The hardest thing is finding the opportunity to play. There is a wheelchair program on Sunday, but it only meets once a week and there is really nothing during the summer. And it’s mostly adults. When [Joanna] first started getting more interested, the hardest thing was that [coaches and tennis progams] just kept saying, ‘No, I won’t take a wheelchair player’—that is the hardest thing with local tournaments as well. They keep saying that, even though the official USTA rules say, ‘Here is how you integrate wheelchair players and able body players.’
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ES: How do you deal with the challenge that few tennis tournaments and programs are willing to take wheelchair athletes?
Jason: Sometimes it’s education and telling them about the rules, sometimes it’s giving some outside assistance to help … In fact, her high school has been fantastic, but it has been a process. There are a lot of questions. Can she play in a tournament? And can she play by USTA rules? There were people who were helpful and then there were people who gave me the run around. A lot of the programs are for adults—there are fewer wheelchair programs for kids. It would be wonderful if there was a recognition that wheelchair tennis is highly integrative.
ES: Have you ever been to see the U.S. Open here in New York?
Joanna: Yes, we have watched a bunch of years!
Jason: It’s a great opportunity for her to see the pros in action.
ES: Do you ever get nervous before you compete?
Joanna: Sometimes. I was nervous at my last tournament at Hilton Head during doubles.Joanna playing at Hilton Head (Photo from Jason Nieh)
ES: Do you want to play in college?
Joanna: It depends on where I go because not all programs have wheelchair tennis, maybe Alabama or Arizona.
For more information on wheelchair tennis, visit the USTA’s site here.
Excelle Sports lifestyle editor Kim Vandenberg is an Olympic bronze medalist, Pan American gold medalist, World Championship silver medalist and three-time U.S. national champion and French national champion in swimming. She’s also a member of Excelle’s Athletes Council.
See the video at http://www.excellesports.com/news/wheelchair-tennis-joanna-nieh-paralympic-games/