Hilary Muehlberger of Greenwood has many titles. She’s a professional tennis player and a role model for the girl’s tennis team of Lee’s Summit North.
But Muehlberber, Miss Wheelchair America 2020, is likely best known for being an advocate for adaptive sports.
Crowned July 6 after nearly a weeklong ceremony, she is the first Miss Wheelchair titleholder from Missouri. Before entering the competition, she had never been interested in pageants, she said.
“At one point Karen Roy, Miss Wheelchair America 2019, came to town,” Muehlberger said. “She talked to me about the Miss Wheelchair America program. Honestly, after that meeting, I left and filled out the application.”
Muehlberger said Roy helped her see how the crown could help her tell her story and spread her message. Her platform is “achieving independence through adaptive sports,” according to Miss Wheelchair America.
Muehlberger has a T12 spinal injury after being a passenger in a drunk driving accident in 2015. She went through weeks of recovery and rehabilitation to learn how to live independently and care for herself.
Five months after the accident, she had moved into an apartment and was living on her own. She started speaking with children at schools about the dangers of drunk driving and the importance of wearing seat belts. However, she said being a cautionary tale for children was taxing.
“It was kind of beating me down,” Muehlberger said. “I got to this point where I was really, really tired of talking about myself like this is the worst-case scenario and that being in a wheelchair is life ending, or a fate worse than death.”
Two years after the accident, Muehlberger’s sister introduced her to Midwest Adaptive Sports. She said she had never picked up a racket before her first practice with the other wheelchair tennis players.
Since then, she has found her place in a community of competitive athletes and is now a professional tennis player. Muehlberger said she recently placed third in Women’s A doubles and Men’s C Doubles at the 2019 U.S. Open USTA Wheelchair Championships.
“Not too shabby for my first time at the open, and it was only my fourth tournament,” she said. “We were playing on courts beside top-ranked players in the world. I got to see the number one wheelchair tennis player in the world compete.”
She has also played alongside the girl’s tennis team of Lee’s Summit North. The school was the first she had gone to as Miss Wheelchair America.
“She was refreshingly honest,” said Stu Reece, coach of the Lee’s Summit North boys and girls tennis teams. “It was great to get to see her and talk to her, and not just for the tennis. Also for the life lessons and all she has learned from her experiences.”
Muehlberger added that she hopes to watch some of the team’s next tournaments and that she enjoyed talking to them, but not as much as playing tennis with them.
“They got me involved in their practice like I was just another player,” she said. “Just getting to play with those girls and really be treated like an equal, I didn’t feel patronized. I felt like they listened and they cared.”
Muehlberger is now touring the country and using her reign to promote adaptive sports. She said her goal is to keep growing her tennis career and one day compete in the Paralympics.