It’s tennis for St. Denis |

It’s tennis for St. Denis

DILLON – Ingenuity and desire have combined over the years to open athletic avenues for people in wheelchairs. Dillon resident Richard St. Denis has witnessed almost the entire evolution.

Now mostly a tennis player, St. Denis has been a U.S. Disabled Ski Team star, a hockey player and a powerlifter since his spinal injury in 1976.

“I feel pretty blessed,” he said. “When I got hurt there was one sport basically, and it was basketball. Then all these other sports have grown.”

The value of athletics – the fitness, the fun, the camaraderie – is magnified when applied to people with disabilities, who can sometimes feel left out of some of life’s pleasures. It’s hard to feel disabled when you’re skiing with able-

bodied friends or proving you can out-bench press them.

“Years ago, I think there were a lot more issues of people feeling sorry for people with disabilities,” St. Denis said. “(Sports) makes you feel better about yourself, and I think it makes other people think more than just about the wheelchair, but they think about you as a person.”

St. Denis has felt this difference in perception deeply, and he now works to help other disabled people feel the same. But not just any disabled people. St. Denis is the Director of Sports and Recreation for The Mobility Project, a nonprofit organization that refurbishes donated wheelchairs and gives them to people in throughout the world. A retired attorney, St. Denis has been to Vietnam, Thailand, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico and Argentina for the Mobility Project in the past two years. In many countries, people with disabilities don’t even have wheelchairs, let alone athletic or recreational opportunities.

“I know how important sports have been for me and what a big impact it’s had on my life,” St. Denis said. “If you play sports or compete, it gives you more self-esteem, you feel better about yourself. And I want to give that to these people.

“It’s not just like going on vacation. It’s really getting to work with people and affect their lives.”

Athletically, St. Denis concentrates mostly on tennis these days. He practices on weekdays at the outdoor courts in Dillon with able-bodied friends, although he gets two bounces as per the rules of wheelchair tennis. He also travels to about a half-dozen tournaments throughout the year, including the national championships in San Diego later this summer.

At 48, he’s long since left the world of competitive downhill skiing, but he still does the sport recreationally. He can also be found on his hand-cycle on the paths of Summit County.

“You take some pretty good falls in ski racing,” said the one-time third-fastest disabled downhill racer in the world. “And as I got older, I just started thinking more about dying than winning, so I wanted to get into another sport, and that’s when I got into tennis.”

St. Denis moved to Summit County in 1986 and worked closely with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. He relocated to Boulder in 1993 before returning to Summit in 2001. He now spends his summers in Dillon and winters in Arizona.

The Sports People series will focus on active Summit Countians every Tuesday in the Summit Daily News.

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