Mary Ann Giuntoli (née Szilagyi) was a top-notch tennis player in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Dubbed the Queen of Tennis, she holds no less than 57 trophies from her accomplishments on the court. In 1960, she was ranked #1 in doubles and individually ranked #3 in Wisconsin, and ranked #7 in the 5-state Central Region. At the 1961 Deaflympics, Mary Ann defeated the 3-time defending champion and won America’s first gold medal in tennis. In 1991, Mary Ann was the fourth woman to be inducted into the USADSF Hall of Fame.
Everyone in my family played tennis, and we had a clay tennis court at our house in Wisconsin. I played in my first tournament at 11 years old. Every summer, I traveled around the Midwest with my family competing in tournaments, and I did very well at it. During the rest of the year, my father made sure my siblings and I trained for at least 4 hours every day, rain or shine. If it rained, we went to the nearby park and practiced at the tennis court there. If it snowed, we cleared the court ourselves and went to work.
When I was 17 years old, I played against Billie Jean King at my family’s country club! I lost, of course, but I admired how well she played and I appreciated how polite she was to me.
I enjoyed playing tennis and gave it my all, but I often felt left out. I was raised in the hearing world, and often had a hard time communicating and understanding people outside of my family. I didn’t socialize very much. I never heard the announcements or the referee’s calls, my family members had to step in and interpret everything for me.
And then one day, I received a letter in the mail from Art Kruger, who is now known as the father of Deaf sports. He explained that someone had read about my athletic achievements in the news; the letter was actually an invitation to play in the 1961 World Games for the Deaf (now known as the Deaflympics). I was absolutely thrilled at the opportunity to represent my country, and intensely curious about the worldwide deaf community.
The World Games was held in Helsinki, Finland, and the American Athletic Association of the Deaf (AAAD) covered the entire trip for every single athlete and coach. The whole trip, from start to finish, took about 6 weeks.
First I spent a week in Washington D.C., where I trained with fellow American deaf athletes. There were over a hundred athletes, coaches and officials involved. It was my first time being immersed in the deaf world, and I had a grand time socializing with deaf people from all walks of life. When we flew to Germany for another week of training, the AAAD took the time to make sure everyone was well cared for, and organized social events for us to enjoy and also unwind from the intensity of competition.
At the World Games, I was inspired by the spirit of all the deaf athletes from all around the world. Even though I was new to sign language, I was able to easily communicate and understand my peers and coaches. We all shared the same experiences and embraced the same cultural values. That was the first time I understood that these people were my people, this was my culture. I finally felt like I belonged.
Afterwards, the AAAD took us on a trip through Europe and we visited 11 different countries. We met some very important people in between lots of sightseeing. Overall, it was a wonderful experience and I made some lifelong friends, some of whom I am still in touch with today. The memories I have, with thanks to the AAAD, are priceless.
It saddens me to see how the USADSF today is struggling to support deaf athletes. The costs of participation in high-level sports can be very expensive, even more so than it was for me back then.
Sports are beneficial in many ways. In my experience, achieving excellence in sports changes people’s perspectives of a deaf person’s abilities. Furthermore, playing sports is a healthy recreational activity that teaches us discipline, teamwork, and leadership among many other skills that are important to us in all aspects of life. It’s also a wonderful way to socialize with our peers outside of school or work.
It is my hope that the USADSF will regain momentum and become even stronger than the AAAD that served me so well in 1961.