University of Arizona engineering management graduate and adaptive sports athlete Noah Yablong will play for Team USA in the 2012 Paralympic Games, the Olympic-style competition for adaptive athletes that begins Aug. 29 in London.
Yablong, a top wheelchair tennis player with a world ranking of 58 and a U.S. Tennis Association ranking of 4, played for the UA wheelchair tennis team during his entire undergraduate engineering studies at the UA. The UA wheelchair team is part of the University's Adaptive Athletics program, one of the only programs of its kind in the nation and operated by the UA Disability Resource Center
Yablong, 24, has been playing wheelchair tennis since he was 13, beginning just a few years after he was diagnosed with Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, a condition that affects the bone and joints at the hip. The other adaptive sport Yablong plays is wheelchair basketball, which he's been playing since age 12.
This summer, Yablong has been on a six-hour-a-day training regimen in preparation for the 2012 Paralympics, which will run through Sept. 9. His routine includes playing tennis in the morning for an hour-and-a-half to two hours, swimming for one to two hours immediately afterward and then hitting tennis balls for two hours in the evening.
When he began training, Yablong says he did two sessions of cardio work per day, and one session of tennis. But as the games approach, he's switched to two sessions of tennis and one of cardio. Is he ready for Paralympic competition yet?
"I'm getting there. I'm not where I want to be quite yet, but I'm sure I'll be there when the games come around," said Yablong, who currently lives in Boynton Beach, located on Florida's east coast just north of Miami.
"My ranking has fallen just a bit because I haven’t been playing in tournaments, I've just been preparing for the games," he said. This will be Yablong's first appearance at the Paralympic Games.
Yablong graduated in May from the UA engineering management program. Balancing academic studies with athletics can always be a challenge, even more so when the program includes plenty of mathematics and physics-based engineering studies.
"Noah was the type of student that took responsibility for his own learning," recalled Jane Hunter, associate director of the UA engineering management program. "When he missed classes due to his team commitments, he always found a way to keep up with his school work," she said.
"He never expected special treatment… he just got it done," Hunter said.
Yablong said that while he enjoyed the mechanical aspect of aerospace engineering and had a knack for the drafting side of civil engineering, he wanted to ultimately be on the people side of engineering projects. "I really enjoyed the classes and courses in engineering management," compared to other programs, he said.
"I've definitely learned better time management," he said.
UA wheelchair tennis coach Bryan Barten, who also will compete as a U.S. wheelchair tennis player this year in London, said he's proud of what Yablong has been able to accomplish. "The life of a student athlete is not easy… in addition to Noah's academic requirements, he had to train daily and travel to competitions throughout his time at the UA," Barten said. "It took a great deal of time and dedication to receive his degree and achieve this level of athletic success at the same time."
Another UA engineering student, Matt Farmen, also plays on the UA wheelchair tennis team but is not competing in this year's Paralympics. Farmen, a UA civil engineering graduate, is scheduled to graduate in December with a master's degree in civil engineering.
In addition to wheelchair tennis, the UA Disability Resource Center's Adaptive Athletics program offers men's and women's basketball, rugby and track and road racing to disabled UA students.
"Adaptive sports really don’t get the same publicity, and it's really kind of sad because it's really impressive to watch," Yablong said. "Most people who come to the games just to watch are always amazed at how much ability people have in wheelchairs."
"Playing in a wheelchair as opposed to being able to run on a court… you lose a lot of mobility," he said. "We can make all the same shots, but we can’t move around the court as easily."
Some fans of the adaptive sport think that wheelchair tennis players could beat a lot of non-chair players. Yablong believes that if some of the top wheelchair tennis players in the world competed with players in the Wimbledon or U.S. Open tournaments, the wheeled players could probably make it through at least the first few rounds of competition.
Which prompts the question, does an engineer have the advantage in tennis?
"I'm not sure if there's an advantage, because it’s a game you can learn whether you're an engineer or not," Yablong said. "I'm a little better with geometry on the court – the angles of shots – and I tend to have a better angle on shots (as a result of) the myriad of physics and related classes. I think that the physics do help a little bit, but I've always had to pay attention to the momentum of the ball and the momentum of myself in the chair."