With a mom who played four sports in high school, Emmy Pfankuch was born to be an athlete. She was also born with spina bifida and her legs are paralyzed.
When she was just four years old, Emmy started attending wheelchair tennis camps with Paralympian David Wagner. It was Wagner, who is paralyzed from the chest down with 30 percent hand function and is currently ranked number three in the world in wheelchair tennis singles and number two in doubles, who first piqued Emmy’s interest in tennis.
Over the years, Emmy continued playing tennis sporadically in her hometown of Salem, Oregon, but she also became a competitive swimmer and competed in para-triathlons and track and field events. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic that fifteen-year old Emmy shifted her athletic focus to tennis. With swimming pools closed and track and field events cancelled, Emmy and her mom, Jill, realized that even with restricted access to tennis courts, they could find a way to play.
They purchased a portable tennis net to set up in empty parking lots and large driveways. Emmy’s friend, Maylee, would meet her to practice on these makeshift tennis courts multiple times a week. The teens live 90 minutes away from one another, but distance didn’t matter—the sport, staying active, and connecting with a friend was most important.
About her doubles partner, 14-year-old Maylee Phelps, Emmy says with a smile, “She’s a really good friend and a great doubles partner. We can read each other’s movements.” Not only does Maylee share Emmy’s diagnosis of spina bifida and love of tennis, she also motivates Emmy. “Maylee made the high-performance team and that is driving me to get to that level, too.”
The teens and their moms often travel together to wheelchair tennis tournaments all over the country. Jill and Maylee’s mom, Rebecca, try to get the two girls to tournaments at least once a month. After competing in Texas and California, they will compete at Sportable’s River City Slam in Richmond, VA in June.
Emmy and Maylee have fun together on and off the court. They love to meet over Zoom, joke around, and sometimes tease their coach. But when it comes to tennis, they take the game seriously. Regular practice and tournament play has only increased their love of the game. Emmy explains, “I enjoy tennis. I don’t feel like I am disabled when I play tennis.”
Another thing Emmy loves about tennis is the ability to play it with able-bodied players. The only change in the rules for a wheelchair tennis player is that they may have a second bounce before returning a shot. She dreams of playing on a collegiate tennis team—she has her eye on Virginia’s Liberty University—alongside able-bodied players. And both teens are working to be on Team USA and compete in the Paralympics.
When she isn’t playing tennis, going to school, travelling to tournaments, or hanging out with Maylee and other friends, Emmy can be found practicing the guitar with her worship band, playing with her dog, Sierra, or studying for her learner’s permit—she’s busy, bright, and brings joy to all that she does.
Born to be an athlete. Born to be a teacher. Emmy is passionate about mentoring younger kids and plans to study to be a math teacher in college. About mentoring and teaching, Emmy simply says, “I want to give back what my coaches gave me.”
Watch Emmy and Maylee compete June 11-13 at Sportable’s River City Slam, presented by The Abstract Athlete. Sanctioned by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the River City Slam is open to all levels, including first-time players in divisions A, B, C, D and Juniors. Collegiate School will host all matches at its Robins Campus. For more information, visit Sportable.org.