For Michigan’s wheelchair tennis team, their competitive debut went about as well as anyone could’ve hoped.
In the team’s first ever appearance at the Collegiate Wheelchair Tennis National Championships, the Wolverines’ athletes were finalists in the team competition and all but one of the individual competitions. The team racked up other accolades as well, bringing home three academic all-American awards in addition to Graduate Student Chris Kelley’s sportsmanship honor. In doing so, Michigan established itself as a force to be reckoned with on the collegiate adaptive sports scene, gaining respect and recognition from competitors and doubters alike.
Still, a sense of “What could’ve been?” lingers.
A pesky asterisk sits alongside one of the Wolverines’ finalist designations. Graduate student Spencer Heslop forwent his chance to potentially be crowned a champion in both his and the Wolverines’ first competitive wheelchair tennis appearance.
Heslop didn’t really know what to expect coming into the tournament. Primarily a wheelchair basketball player — Heslop played basketball for four years at the University of Illinois — he only began training seriously for wheelchair tennis within the past year. Truthfully, all that mattered to Heslop before his debut is that he gave it his all.
And that he did. In Tier 2, the intermediate-level individual tier, the unknown Heslop shocked his more experienced opponents, performing dominantly in each of his three matches. In all, Heslop dropped only a single set on his path to the Tier 2 final.
In the team competition, Heslop partnered with Kelley, Michigan’s highest-ranked and most experienced player, admirably well. The pair blew away Biola University’s duo before upsetting the second-ranked San Diego State University in a thrilling contest, setting Michigan up for a final showdown against the five-time champion University of Alabama.
But for Heslop, this was the end of the road. The Tier 2 trophy was handed to Clemson’s Jeff Townsend, and Michigan’s Caiden Baxter would take Heslop’s place in the team final.
Heslop, a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is a committed observer of the Sabbath. While different people and religious groups observe the Sabbath in different ways, for Heslop, it means that he doesn’t study, work, or compete in any athletic competitions on Sundays.
“It’s not that he says ‘thou shalt not play on Sundays,’” Heslop said. “It’s something that I’ve chosen to do as a sign of my commitment to try to follow him, to take a day to try to be a little bit more kind, a little more loving in terms of reaching out to others and helping them feel loved.”
Undoubtedly, setting aside an entire day each week to observe the Sabbath is a significant commitment, and it hasn’t come without its challenges for Heslop. A lifelong athlete, Heslop has sat out a considerable number of games throughout his life to uphold the commitment to his faith.
“Especially when I was younger, it was even harder than it is now. It was important for me to find out if this is what I truly believed, if I was committed to this personally,” Heslop said. “I did a lot of soul searching. But ultimately, I made this commitment and I feel like I’ve become a better person because of it.”
So, while Heslop’s decision to sit out the Tier 2 and team finals may incite disbelief for some, his mind was made up a long time ago. Going into the tournament, Heslop knew that if he played well enough to make it to the final day, he would have to accept finishing as the Tier 2 runner-up by default and watch the team final from the sidelines.
For some, knowing that they couldn’t win the championship even if they played well enough to deserve it would significantly impact their performance. But for Heslop, competition is about far more than individual accolades.
“It definitely weighs on my mind a little bit, but at the end of the day, it’s for the team. In the individual competition, I just wanted to perform as well as I could, and as far as that got me, so be it,” Heslop said. “And as much I’d like to be able to take part in the team final, I also know that my teammates want to and deserve to, and I think that strengthened my resolve to get us (to the final).
“I can’t say that there aren’t moments where I don’t wonder ‘what if’, but focusing on those moments doesn’t get you anywhere other than in a tougher place. So I try to channel that energy to being a voice of support from the sideline.”
While Heslop has been committed to observing the Sabbath for a long time now, the experience of having to sit Sundays out hasn’t become any easier. The team, however, stands proudly behind Heslop and his beliefs.
“We talked about this possibility at the beginning of the season and they’ve been behind me this whole time,” Heslop said. “As we ourselves are trying to find our recognition within the University and in our sphere of DEI, they turned around and extended that same welcoming atmosphere to me as far as religion is concerned.
“That goes a long way into demonstrating the character of the people we have on our team.”
While Michigan had been in talks with the tournament’s organizer, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), to get the finals moved back to Saturday, they were ultimately unsuccessful. With Heslop on the sidelines, Michigan’s Baxter and Kelley put up a valiant fight against Alabama’s heavyweights in the team final, but fell short in the end.
Heslop’s would-be opponent in the Tier 2 final, Clemson’s Townsend, was willing to try to work out a schedule change — the two are former teammates and members of the same church — but concluded that a Saturday final would be too quick a turnaround time after already playing three matches that day in the scorching Orlando heat.
So, for Heslop and for Michigan, despite performing better than anyone had expected, there will always remain a small sense of what might have been.
For Heslop, though, that’s quite alright.
“I feel like I left it all out there in the matches I got to play in,” Heslop said. “I don’t think I left anything unsaid, so to speak. And that’s what I focus on more — what I did accomplish, instead of worrying too much about what I could have accomplished.”