Meet the Match

From Player to Lifechanger on the Tennis Court

For Valeria Filiaeva, tennis was always a way to connect. Born into a soldier’s family, she grew up with her maternal grandparents in Belarus. At the age of 10, she began playing tennis to get closer to her father. Valeria was so impressive that she traveled to the IMG Academy Bollettieri Tennis Program in Florida to train and was soon ranked among the Top 30 juniors in the world by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).

By 2008, however, Valeria was ready to give up competitive tennis. She was preparing to enroll in the journalism school at Belarusian State University and wanted to transition into coaching while she pursued her studies. One day while walking around the tennis courts she was approached by a lady who mentioned to her that a group was thinking about launching a wheelchair tennis team.

“It was a good way to financially support myself and learn to coach, but I had no experience with Paralympic sports before,” Valeria says. “At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to take the job. But, I thought about it for a minute and I decided, ‘Yes, I will do this.’’’

From translating videos and articles from YouTube and wheelchair tennis websites at the very beginning, Valeria is now one of the recognized pioneers for the sport in Belarus. At only 24 years old, she heads the wheelchair tennis departments for both the Belarusian Tennis Federation and the integrated sports rehabilitation center Egalite. On top of these responsibilities, Valeria is a tennis commentator for state television and a producer for Stringershub, an international network of freelance journalists who provide content for Eastern European television broadcasts.

In her mind, it is important to treat all her athletes the same. In the next five years, Valeria hopes to see Belarus with a Paralympic wheelchair tennis team and its players entering into the top international rankings, which she knows can only happen if both she and the players are unshakable in their determination.

“One of my students told me that when I come to the courts I never treat them as weak,” Valeria says “I am shouting and pushing them. And they appreciate this because they know I feel honored for them to be my students. I believe they can do anything they want. It doesn’t matter that they are in wheelchairs.”

Even with her enduring attitude, Valeria does have goals that she believes cannot be achieved without the help of a program like GSMP: Sport for Community. She wants to expand her networks within Belarus and find likeminded individuals working in disability sport that can support each other and reach more people. Valeria also seeks vital private sponsorships to support the tennis programs and herself.

“I need for someone other than myself to tell me I can do it,” Valeria says. “I need to be pushed because sometimes I have no idea how to proceed. Everyone in Belarus is talking about our economic problems and other situations outside of my control. And it makes me worry if I’ll be able to do this work much longer.”

Mary Patstone, director of adaptive sports and recreation, and Dr. Cheri Blauwet, attending physician, of Spaulding Rehabilitation Network understand the kind of perseverance that Valeria needs to continue her success in Belarus. With more than a decade of experience as a director within the nonprofit sector, Mary’s experience will be invaluable for Valeria. Alongside Dr. Cheri, a seven-time Paralympic medalist who also works as a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, Spaulding’s mentors will be able to expose Valeria to experts in the fields of advocacy, research, workforce development, and political impact. The vastness of Spaulding’s programming and partnerships will provide Valeria with the experience she needs to return to Belarus rejuvenated and with a strong, comprehensive plan for continuing to develop wheelchair tennis and other adaptive sports.

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