For over a decade, Kirstie Marx, tennis professional at Kildaire Farms Tennis Club, has volunteered countless hours of her time to athletes with intellectual disabilities training them for their tennis competition in the fall Special Olympics games in North Carolina. Eight weeks prior to the games, she works with them to develop their tennis skills and forge relationships with herself, other athletes, and the volunteers. Each year, it seemed the season was ending just as she was making progress with the athletes and she wanted to keep working with them to continue developing their skills. Even the Special Olympic Games for tennis, all played in one fall weekend, were over equally as fast. The athletes and their families longed for more time together on the tennis courts, both to play and to socialize.
Opportunities to continue year round tennis play was scarce for the athletes. Special leagues were not available, clinics were hard to locate, and there were very few tournaments to compete within. The United States Tennis Association was very interested in promoting and growing tennis in all areas; however, local Community Tennis Associations were not trained to work with Special Athletes. The thought of having these athletes wait another year before they could enjoy competitive tennis in the Special Olympics games seemed unjust.
Providing year-round tennis for athletes with intellectual disabilities does more than provide wellness and socialization for the athletes. The parents recognize the importance of the social network formed with other families living with the same hopes, dreams and challenges. This network provides needed information about residential arrangements, career choices, and social opportunities. The parents found both support and guidance among new friends. Having this support network available year-round would be a tremendous support system for them.
Coaches and volunteers recognize the importance of the difference they were making in the lives of these athletes. As mentors, they demonstrate not only proper tennis techniques, but also proper social interactions. These athletes have different learning styles, and most learn best by following a visual example. The modeling done by the caring coaches taught the athletes how to respond to each other with kindness and patience. The modeling done by the volunteers serving as partners for the athletes taught respect and awareness of differences. Having the athletes and volunteers working together on the tennis courts bleeds out into the community and improves the level of inclusiveness for all.
With the desire and will to continue these important relationships, Abilities Tennis began to form in 2007. We exist to provide continuing education for our athletes . In 2012 we became a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and we are a Community Tennis Association (CTA) under the USTA umbrella. We hope to educate mind and body. We hope to inspire both athletes and volunteers to become better citizens, learning acceptance and tolerance. We hope to provide exercise for the body, teach tennis strategy to exercise the mind, and model patience and acceptance to further the social interactions of all our athletes. Each Community Tennis Association under USTA guidelines is asked to provide inclusive opportunities for the community. As a statewide organization, Abilities Tennis is able to help other CTAs meet their goal by pairing tennis athletes with intellectual disabilities with coaches and mentors. Abilities Tennis helps the USTA meet its goal of offering a positive tennis experience for all. We want everyone to laugh and have fun, and be examples throughout the tennis world!