Arianna Conley, 14, breaks into a smile during net play at camp at the Boeing Employees Tennis Center last Saturday. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Connecting on the court | PHOTOS

Academy, center bring spirit of tennis to special needs players

Between lobs and volleys, there were smiles and hugs.

Kids wildly swinging rackets, connecting with the ball, constantly moving to the music and soaking in simple instruction from staff and volunteers.

The spacious Boeing Employees Tennis Center was their own private playground, the Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Individuals with Down Syndrome holding court.

The two-day camp in Kent last weekend put more than a dozen participants from the area in constant motion, teaching the fundamentals of the game while promoting balance and footwork, agility and strength, coordination and core work.

Most importantly, it provided a physical outlet, a clinically designed and tailored program to help those with special needs.

Chris Strano, of Renton, welcomes the camaraderie with friends, the chance to come to the center each week to work and play. Bound in a wheelchair, Strano is legally blind but has learned to strike the ball with the timed verbal commands of his coaches.

“I like being with all the people,” Strano said, pausing from drills at camp. “This is fun.”

The tennis center offers many programs, including a regular spot for the city’s adaptive recreation and sports classes, now 20 years running.

Taking it a step further, the center welcomed the academy, a nonprofit organization founded by Vince Schmidt, the father of a son with Down Syndrome and a tennis pro, and Luke and Murphy Jensen, past French Open champions.

Now in its 15th year, the camp goes coast to coast and beyond, having scheduled a camp in China this fall. Schmidt said the academy offers the largest sports-specific, special needs program in the country, providing athletic options to about 3,500 kids each year.

“It’s giving them opportunities they wouldn’t normally have,” Schmidt said.

In Kent, a dozen athletes participated in the inaugural two-day event last April. It was an unqualified success and truly inspirational, said Adrian Buchan, Boeing Employee Tennis Club director.

“If they can pick up how to do this now, then maybe for the next 20, 30 years it can be an activity that they would enjoy and stay active,” Buchan said. “It’s just really positive … and we keep it moving. We keep it interesting.”

Club member and youth coach Daryl Harper, whose daughter Maeson has Down Syndrome and actively plays tennis, found the camp online and invited Schmidt and Co. to the Pacific Northwest.

Organizers said a growing camp likely will spin off into bigger things.

“My hope is that for the first time ever in Washington, as far as I know, we will have Special Olympic tennis teams,” said Harper, adding that he plans to coach a squad based in South King County.

At camp, high school players volunteer as buddies, putting in community service hours. The center donates the courts, its longtime head pro Allan Overland donates his time.

The reward can be found in the players’ expressions. Each athlete leaves with new gear, lessons and encouragement.

“They don’t have to come with anything but a great attitude,” Schmidt said. “If they have a smile on their face, we’ll make the smile bigger. If they don’t have a smile, we’ll make them smile.

“I would love for them to have a love for tennis, but more importantly than that … I would love for them to be more active.”

Jillian DePoppe, 15, works on her forehand return during camp at the Boeing Employees Tennis Center last Saturday. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Vince Schmidt, tennis pro and co-founder of the Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Individuals with Down Syndrome, works with a player during camp. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Maeson Harper takes aim to return a shot during camp at the Boeing Employees Tennis Center last Saturday. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Maeson Harper laughs between swings of the racket. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Club member and youth coach Daryl Harper warms up the players with the music of “YMCA”. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

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