• Alachua County Represented for the First Time in Special Olympics Tennis

    Sometimes it takes a village to get a tennis program started, and in our case, it certainly did. After many months of hard work on the part of organizers, volunteers, and athletes alike, for the first time ever, Alachua County was represented in the tennis competition in the Special Olympics Summer Games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando.

    SO feb 16 18 groupThe journey started when a board member of the Gainesville Area Community Tennis Association (GACTA), Elizabeth Patterson, decided to focus her considerable energy and talent on creating a sustainable adaptive tennis program in Gainesville. She first approached Royce Kamman, the principal of Sidney Lanier Center, which is the only public school for children with developmental disabilities in our community. Mr. Kamman embraced the idea of bringing GACTA’s and the USTA’s resources to the PE program at Sidney Lanier. The center became a USTA Member Organization, and its PE program was registered with USTA. In partnership with the PE teacher, Winston Church, and with the assistance of USTA and the USTA Florida Section Foundation’s equipment and programming grants, low-compression balls, racquets and nets were acquired for the program. Weekly tennis instruction was incorporated into the PE curriculum, using volunteers from the tennis community and the University of Florida. Chris Gonzalez, student organizer of Gator Pals, a UF student-run organization, partnered with GACTA to provide volunteers to help facilitate Special Olympics practices for the tennis athletes. Special Olympics Florida provided a day of on-site training, led by tennis pro Howard Chodek, as part of the Special Olympics coach certification process. UF’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities also provided free training for our staff and volunteers on best practices for working with people with developmental disabilities, including how best to structure practices. A generous local donor established the Aces in Motion Julie E. Best Memorial Tennis Fund to help fund the program, and the USTA Florida Section Foundation continued its support. so area 197

    Another important goal for Elizabeth was to provide the athletes with an inclusive sport experience, and the Project Unify program of Special Olympics provided that opportunity. Taylor Byle, a UF pre-med student, had just organized a Project Unify flag football season for Special Olympics Alachua, and was volunteering as an assistant basketball coach for Sidney Lanier. In late 2015, both Taylor and Mr. Church assisted in recruiting Sidney Lanier students for the tennis program, and they both greatly helped us navigate the paperwork needed for establishing our local Special Olympics tennis program.SO area 2

    Weekly practices for the Special Olympics athletes began in late December, 2015, in the gym at Sidney Lanier, as well as at a city tennis facility. Volunteers came from both our local tennis community and from UF, many of whom formed a strong bond with the players. Athletes of all abilities learned tennis skills and made steady progression into various levels of competition. The athletes, as part of the “ACES” team, formed lasting friendships and became true teammates, cheering each other on in their skills and competition matches.

    This spring, the athletes first competed in County and Area Games in a variety of categories, including Tennis Skills, Red and Orange ball singles and doubles, and Unified Tennis Doubles, in which a Special Olympics athlete is paired with a “neuro-typical” player. Based on their results in the Area Games, seven of our tennis athletes and three Unified partners were chosen to attend the Special Olympics Summer Games, which was held at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in May. The Summer Games provided quite an experience for the athletes– the spectacular Opening Ceremony, two full days of competition, and the closing events, which included a player party and dance. The tennis players from Alachua County were recognized repeatedly, being called to the winner’s platform over and over to receive their trophies and medals.so summer games 16

    Elizabeth commented, “As the adaptive tennis program developer and a certified Special Olympics tennis coach, I was very privileged to train so many outstanding athletes in the Aces in Motion Adaptive Tennis program. I couldn’t be prouder of the team ACES athletes. I am personally humbled and awed by each athlete’s sportsmanship, enthusiasm, hard work and dedication.  I am looking forward to another incredible year!”  

    so area 122Eden, a 16 year-old Sidney Lanier student of Chinese descent with Down Syndrome, was one of the athletes who traveled to the Summer Games. Her mother, Haley, traveled with her and described the experience. She wrote, “This has been an incredible opportunity for Eden! Just the chance to learn the sport and have people invest so much time and energy into her has brought her great joy. This is especially valuable for Eden as she has spent the majority of her life in a (Chinese) orphanage with hundreds of other children. To have an opportunity like this – and then to even be able to go to the State Games — was more than we could have hoped for her.  At Disney she kept telling me over and over and over how happy she was, and it brought me to tears several times. I can honestly say this was probably the happiest I have seen her in the two years since she has been home. And it was such a great chance for me to be able to go with her and just enjoy seeing how incredibly joyful she was. To see her get an opportunity like this – she has come so far — and every person at GACTA has helped build her confidence in herself”

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    Haley went on to talk about the program. “The tennis program has meant so much to Eden and our family. We have been amazed by all the volunteers that come out with such great attitudes and by how well they relate to the athletes. They show the athletes that they are valued and that they can accomplish great things. Coach Patterson especially has put so much time and excellence into this program and it shows. We truly couldn’t be more grateful and look forward to Eden growing in her tennis skills even more in the coming year!”

    The tennis program has not only benefited the athletes, but many of the volunteers also felt that the experience was very rewarding. Taylor Byle, who served as overall county coordinator for the Special Olympics Area Games and as a Unified Tennis partner, described his feelings about playing with his doubles partner, JJ. Taylor explained, “Although I have been volunteering with Special Olympics Alachua for more than a year, this was my first opportunity to participate as a Unified Partner. Competing alongside an athlete with intellectual disabilities was very enlightening, in particular getting to experience the process of struggling through something and progressing slowly. I had no previous tennis experience so learning a new sport alongside my teammate gave me some perspective into what Special Olympics athletes go through. Most of the athletes struggle with simple tasks, so experiencing sort of what they go through and being on a level playing field was eye opening. It was also great to see JJ improve over time to become both a better tennis player and a better athlete. As a Unified Partner, you know that someone else is depending on you and you know how important winning is to the athletes, so you put added pressure on yourself to be at your best. Even though we did not win our event, we both progressed very far in a short period of time. I look forward to improving and competing with JJ in the future.”

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    He went on to say, “The enthusiasm of the athletes made me look forward to going to practice every week. Seeing the smiles on the athlete’s faces during competition and when they receive their medals makes it all worth it. The excitement is contagious and it’s what keeps bringing me back to volunteer.”  




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