Hilary Muehlberger dabbled in sports before she was injured in a car crash, but it was the Kansas City No Coast Wheelchair Tennis Program that helped her find a community and a passion.
Muehlberger holds a range of titles: professional tennis player (she has a U.S. Tennis Association ranking in both singles and doubles wheelchair tennis), adaptive sports and disability rights advocate, secretary for the parks and recreation board in her hometown Greenwood, Missouri, medical supplies account manager with NuMotion, and 2020 Ms. Wheelchair America.
Ms. Wheelchair America began in 1972 as a way to celebrate achievements and spread awareness of the needs for people with mobility impairment. Winners aren’t selected by way of good looks or sheer talent. Instead, competitors are judged on advocacy skills to select the most accomplished and most articulate spokeswoman for people with mobility issues and disabilities, according to the program’s site.
Muehlberger was awarded the crown in 2019 for her platform “Achieving Independence through Adaptive Sports” and is now serving an extra year since the 2020 competition was canceled.
“The fire in me that wants to advocate and create a better world, not just for me and people who have experienced similar injuries, but for all people with disabilities. It’s really just so cool that I have this platform, and I’m able to talk about things that have helped me and to help people find that strength inside of them as well.” Muehlberger said in a video interview with The Gamut Network. “I think a lot of people see my platform and are like ‘ugh she wants to talk about sports.’ It’s not really about sports. It’s about community, about having a team, having those peer mentors who you can reach out to on a bad day. There’s been times when I’ve had to call one of my teammates because I was in an uncomfortable predicament and they had to walk me through how to get myself out of it.”
Muehlberger told the Boonville Daily News that playing sports helps people deal with depression and anxiety while also keeping them physically fit, and research shows that people living with disabilities are more likely to be employed if they play adaptive sports, which helps them achieve independence and build confidence. Above all, sports create groups of people with similar interests and goals who can support one another.
“You don’t have to play a sport, but find your group of people who are going to support you through thick and thin, because you’re going to need them at some point, or they’re going to need you,” she told the Boonville Daily News.
Muehlberger has used a wheelchair since she sustained a spinal cord injury in 2015. Two years later, she looked for a hobby that she could do when not at work or home. She had played soccer and volleyball before the accident, and she settled on adaptive sports, thanks to The Whole Person, a Kansas City-based organization that offers services to people with disabilities to help them increase their independence, whose recreation coordinator invited Muehlberger to play adaptive tennis. She got in a sports wheelchair, picked up a racket, and never looked back.
Although Muehlberger wasn’t originally interested in pageants, she was connected with Karen Roy, Ms. Wheelchair America 2019, who inspired her to compete. Muehlberger told The Gamut Network that the competition gave participants an opportunity to advocate for issues that were important to them, rather than catering messages for what the greater public wants to hear. After speaking with Roy, Muehlberger submitted her application for Ms. Wheelchair America when she got home.
“At the time I was speaking for a couple different organizations and it was always very centered around ‘don’t drink and drive, kids, or you’ll end up like me. But ending up like me isn’t horrible,” Muehlberger told The Gamut Network. “I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about when you do end up this way, how do you move forward and how do you find the strength in the community.”
Muehlberger has spent her service term traveling the country to promote her message and spread awareness for disability rights and the benefits of adaptive sports. Through her job with NuMotion in Kansas City, she was able to team up with Midwest Adaptive Sports to collect and send activity wheelchairs to those in need in Ghana.
“It is still very much a life worth living. I live a more fulfilling life today than I could have ever hoped for before my injury. I have a community of people that I didn’t have before, I get to participate with this community on a peer level. It has completely changed my perspective on life and I will be grateful for my injury every day because I choose to see the beauty in it.” Muehlberger said in a Q&A with NuMotion.