Born with spina bifida — a developmental disorder in which the backbone and spinal canal do not close before birth, which affects her ability to balance and hold herself up — Reyes-Chian has a more relaxed mentality for her matches.
“I just come here and try to have fun,” she said.
It is a grateful attitude from a 14-year-old who never expected to play a varsity sport in high school, who six years ago struggled to even make contact when she first picked up a racket and ball, yet found an outlet nonetheless.
“Before I started tennis, I thought I would never do anything in life and I would just be there sitting doing nothing,” she said. “But when I started tennis, I was like, I’m going to get good at this. I’m going to keep on doing it and getting better.”
On the court Reyes-Chian is, of course, a rarity. While other players tuck spare tennis balls into the sides of their skirts, Reyes-Chian slides them into the spokes of her wheelchair. A routine shot that demands just a side step and forehand from able-bodied players sometimes results in tugging, pulling, spinning choreography for Reyes-Chian. During matches, she is allowed two bounces to get to the ball instead of the traditional one.
While the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association changed its bylaws in 2010 to accommodate athletes with disabilities by creating corollary athletic programs, the Virginia High School League has no such legislation. So Reyes-Chian competes with the Chantilly varsity, and Fairfax County has made adjustments to better accommodate her. Small asphalt ramps were built at the entrances to the school’s larger tennis court, and Chantilly Coach Karen Kegerreis and an activity bus driver underwent training for operating a bus with a wheelchair lift.
In many ways, though, Reyes-Chian is treated no differently from her teammates. She beat out 10 girls for one of the 16 spots on the team, according to Kegerreis. She goes through warmup lines and stretches with the team. She cheers on her teammates during matches — only the top six singles and top three doubles matches count toward the team score — and displays the same competitiveness on some points during her own exhibition matches as the Chargers’ top-ranked players.
“I truly think that once you get on the tennis courts, it kind of evens out the playing field,” Kegerreis said. “It’s the court, it’s the racket, it’s the lines, it’s the tennis ball. . . . That’s what’s exciting to her, you’re out and you’re competing no matter what your handicap is.”
Reyes-Chian was born in Lima, Peru, but her family moved to the United States when she was just a few months old to seek better treatment for her condition. The disability affects Reyes-Chian’s balance and leg strength, she said. She uses a walker for short distances at home and a wheelchair for longer distances and in school. Reyes-Chian also has a specialized wheelchair for tennis, with angled wheels that allow her to turn more easily.