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Four local teenagers who set out to plan a fun day of tennis for a group of special needs athletes at North Raleigh Racquet Club got more out of the event than they gave.
Great weather didn’t hurt either.
When officials with the Adaptive Tennis Association of North Carolina named their signature event “Winter Chill,” they could not have known that Dec. 4 would feel more like a spring day.
Athletes and volunteers shed their jackets for the Fourth Annual Winter Chill and enjoyed the warm sunlight.
Emily Ratliffe, 15, who plays tennis at Ravenscroft School, knows firsthand how sports can make magic for athletes with intellectual disabilities. Her brother, Kevin Ratliffe, is a special needs player and has inspired her to get involved in adaptive tennis.
“I have seen over the years how great Kevin’s volunteer tennis partners have been,” she said. “Before he started playing tennis, he didn’t socialize much, but now he is very social. Many athletes like Kevin open up through tennis.”
Volunteering has given Ratliffe more self-confidence too.
“I have always been shy, but through this program, I am not afraid to get up in front of people and give speeches anymore,” she said. “These athletes inspire me to be my best.”
Another of the event organizers, Madison McCarroll of Apex, is a believer.
“It is great to see the difference tennis makes in these athletes’ lives,” said McCarroll, 17.
Sports have transformed Kristine Hughes, who was among the 16 athletes who played adaptive tennis at Winter Chill.
Hughes was well into adulthood when she realized she was eligible to play sports with Special Olympics.
She had grown up, played tennis in high school and at a community college in California, and had even served as a fire recruit in the U.S. Navy before she knew that she had a disability.
“I had always known I was different, but I did not know why,” she said.
Hughes, 39, spent her childhood years in the foster care system. Using her connections through the Navy, Hughes acquired some of her early medical records and learned she was born with fetal alcohol syndrome.
Throughout her life, sports have been good therapy for her.
“God gave me the ability to play sports and to have fun,” she said.
She lives with a family she met while living in Idaho. They moved to Raleigh three years ago and invited her to move with them. She is studying office administration at Wake Technical Community College with a goal to graduate in 2013.
She’s a star on the Special Olympics of North Carolina tennis circuit and has been invited to play at The Xperience, a three-day tennis festival at the Boars Head Inn in Charlottesville, Va., Jan. 12-14, where she will face other top Special Olympics tennis players in the country.
Kirstie Marx, tennis pro at the Kildaire Farms Swim and Racquet Club in Cary, is one of the ATANC’s founders and serves as the organization’s vice president. She is also director of the Tennis Sports Development Team for Special Olympics North Carolina and has coached tennis athletes with intellectual disabilities for 11 years.
She helped form ATANC to give special needs tennis players an opportunity to play year round. The organization, included under the US Tennis Association umbrella, has applied for official nonprofit status from the IRS. Marx expects to receive approval soon.
“Tennis is my passion,” Marx said. “I am a dreamer, but I never dreamed we’d have come this far.”
Marx’s daughter Emma, 14, joined the other teenagers who planned the Winter Chill event. She jokes that she didn’t have much choice about getting involved in the event, but she is glad she did.
“We wanted to make the day special for the athletes,” Emma said.
Meeting a legend
The day was special for Emma and the other volunteers, too.
The ATANC partners with the Western Wake Tennis Association and N.C. State University to produce the annual Winter Chill.
The Wolfpack women’s tennis team partnered with the adaptive athletes for a few rounds of doubles.
Later, volunteers and athletes gathered at the J.W. Isenhour Indoor Tennis Center at NCSU to meet professional players, including John Isner, a player from Greensboro who famously won the longest match in tennis history in Wimbledon in 2010.
Isner was in Raleigh to play in the Second Annual Charity Tennis Exhibition to benefit Ovarian Cancer Research at Duke University.
Isner answered questions, signed autographs, and posed for photos, thrilling athletes and volunteers alike.
“This is a wonderful program,” Hughes said. “It gives athletes a chance to play, to be leaders, and to have fun. And giving athletes a chance is important.”
JC Gunther and Charlie Price won the Buffaloe Lanes North Thanksgiving Youth/Adult Bowling tournament, scoring 2,43 in five games. Collin Pickup/Matt Taylor placed second with a total score of 1968 and Vivian Campos/Jim Ramge were third, scoring 1925. First place winners won a $250 scholarship; second place winners received $100 and third place winners received $50.