Not one for pageants, Hilary Muehlberger was skeptical when she was first asked to take part in the Ms. Wheelchair America competition.

It wasn’t until she met Karen Roy, Ms. Wheelchair America 2019, that she realized the competition was more than a pageant.

“I met Karen for lunch and she talked to me for an hour about all the things she was able to accomplish and all the events she was able to attend and talk about her platform, “ Muehlberger said. “As soon as I got home that day, I filled out my application.”

The July competition was a better experience than she imagined. She was surprised when she became the first woman from Missouri crowned Ms. Wheelchair America 2020, because the women she competed against were so impressive. She looks up to all of them, Muehlberger said.

“The women who I competed with were so inspiring,” she said. “They’ve done so many good things for the disability community.”

Competitors for Ms. Wheelchair America are judged on their advocacy, rather than things like beauty and special talents, like the Ms. America pageant. Throughout the week, judges interview competitors and the women take part in workshops on topics including health and wellness for women in wheelchairs and adaptive fashion, she said.

“They make clothes that work better with the chair and fit correctly, and then you don’t have to worry,” she said.

The competition culminates with the women giving their platform speeches, which gives them a chance to advocate for something they are passionate about. For Muehlberger, now nationally-ranked by the U.S. Tennis Association, it’s sports, and how people who use wheelchairs can achieve independence through playing adaptive sports.

Playing sports helps people dealing with depression and anxiety, and keeps them physically fit, Muehlberger said. There is also research that shows people living with disabilities are more likely to be employed if they play adaptive sports, a key part of being independent. Playing sports lets people socialize and build the confidence they need to go out and apply for jobs, she said.

“People living with disabilities want to be productive, so it’s really just giving them that push and that opportunity to be able to,” she said.

Muehlberger’s spinal cord was injured in a car crash four years ago. She has some feeling in one leg, but not the other, she said. The nerve damage keeps her from walking, so she uses a wheelchair for mobility, she said.

Muehlberger lives in the Kansas City suburb of Greenwood, where she serves on the Parks and Recreation Board, and has already convinced the city to put in its own tennis court. Much of her mother, Robin’s family is from Boonville. Her great-grandmother, Nina, sewed in the shoe factory, and she has several relatives who grew up in or still live in Boonville, she said.

Gathered together in the Frederick Hotel, Muehlberger’s Boonville family members said they were in awe of her accomplishments and proud of the woman she’s become.

“You never wish for things like that to happen to people, but she is just more focused and more defined in so many ways,” Cousin Gara Stowers said. “When I see her, I’m just so full of pride.”

Muehlberger agreed that she’s living better today than she was before. She’s been sober for two years, and is involved in a community of advocates for disability awareness who continue to impress and inspire her, she said.

Everybody can play

Before the accident, Muehlberger played soccer and volleyball, but never a racquet sport. She picked up adaptive tennis about two years ago. She was looking for some kind of hobby outside of going to work and going home.

She reached out to The Whole Person, a Kansas City-based resource organization for people with disabilities, about adaptive sports. She quickly heard back from Rick Haith, recreation coordinator with The Whole Person, and he invited her to tennis practice.

A nervous Muehlberger went to the practice not knowing what to expect. She got into a wheelchair designed for adaptive sports and started hitting around tennis balls. She was hooked after the first practice, she said.

She liked that the rules for adaptive tennis are basically the same as standing tennis. The only difference is that the ball can bounce twice before the player hits it in adaptive tennis, she said. She was also spurred on by her early success. She played in the Wheel it Forward adaptive tennis tournament in North Kansas City, where she finished first in doubles and second in singles, she said.

“I’m a real, real competitive person by nature, so I was like, ‘I can get behind this,’” Muehlberger said.

She’s continued to improve, and is now nationally ranked in both singles and doubles. In September, she is playing in the U.S. Open Wheelchair Championships in St. Louis.

Along with success on the court, Muehlenberg said the community of people she has met playing adaptive tennis have been indispensable to her. They’ve helped her find doctors, resource groups and even a grant she can apply for to help buy her own sports wheelchair, she said.

“You’re learning from people who have been in a chair for 15-plus years longer than you have, and they’ve been there, done that with just about anything you can imagine, she said.

As Ms. Wheelchair America, she’s taking advantage of every opportunity she has to continue rising disability awareness and spread her message about the importance of adaptive sports. She’s done Educate the Educators, going to physical education classes to talk about adaptive sports and how kids can get kids with disabilities involved in their play on the playground and at home, she said.

“There’s a definite difference between inviting someone with a disability to the table, and then to actually allow them to be part of the conversation, a productive member of that group of friends,” she said.

Because the adaptive sports community did so much to help Muehlberger, she wanted to give back to other people living with disabilities in the same way. She knows sports aren’t for everyone, but everyone can find a similar group of people with shared interests, she said.

“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 said.

Another of Muehlberger’s responsibilities as Ms. Wheelchair America is to travel to Abilities Expos around the U.S., where people living with disabilities can connect with different resources.

“They’re meant for the disability community to come out to see the new technologies that are coming out, the different adaptive sports, how they can get involved in the community,” she said. “Because the community is where you find the resources you need to live a healthy, productive life.”