His name is Grant. He is 16-years-old. I met Grant at a tennis event for special needs kids at Daniel Island, SC. The following week, we shared the same court at the Special Olympics tennis tournament.
Over those two consecutive weekends, I played tennis with lots of kids. They are special alright, and I’m not talking about their sensory (deafness or limited hearing) and/or developmental (Down Syndrome and autism) disabilities.
I am talking about the gusto with which these teens seize activities and opportunities. Despite the unique problems they face, they were enthusiastic. They welcomed the challenges of competition. Most admirable of all, they did not expect or desire “special” treatment.
Stevie, a Down Syndrome tennis player, was kind of the acting mayor at both events. Sweatbands wrapped around his head and both wrists aka John McEnroe, Stevie was a one-man welcoming committee. He introduced himself to every new face.
My first partner on-court was a Snow White lookalike—the same shiny dark hair, the same “snow white” rosy-cheeked complexion. Her name was Anne Marie, and, like Stevie, she was born with Down Syndrome.
“Anne Marie was my best friend’s name in high school,” I told her. “We’re going to be great partners.”
“No,” Anne Marie said. “We’re going to win because I am a two-time gold medalist. I study the game.”
Anne Marie backed up her words with consistent groundstrokes. After we won our set, I was paired with Mia, a smiling, bright-eyed African American teen.
In addition to developmental issues, Mia is deaf. She also possesses a powerful forehand—the kind of power that weaklings like me dream about.
It was particularly amazing to watch Mia track down a ball without the benefit of hearing it pop off her opponent’s racquet or bounce up from the court’s surface. Every time we won a point, she skipped over to slap a high-five, laughing all the way.
I made another new friend in Kylie who was eager to show me her new racquet. We took our positions on-court against another volunteer—a tall young man who was visiting his family after his hockey season in Austria had ended.
“OK, Kylie,” I said, “I know that guy is cute, but don’t let him distract you.”
“He is NOT cute,” said Kylie.
A couple of days later, I bumped into Kylie at Publix. I had picked up a couple of items, and she just happened to be bagging groceries in the line I had chosen.
“Did you know that Kylie is a very good tennis player,” I asked the cashier.
“I am,” said Kylie. “I am a good tennis player. We played against a really cute guy, but he is NOT a good tennis player.”
Kylie insisted on carrying my small bag to my car. As we said our goodbyes, she squeezed me in a tight embrace, and said, “I hope we get to play again soon Genny.”
But we were talking about Grant, weren’t we? Grant was one of my opponents at the Special Olympics tournament.
“Take it easy on me,” I told him.
“I’m gonna school you,” he said.
After Grant “schooled” me (no double faults—not one), he told me that I would make a good training partner. Then he took my phone and said, “I’ll put my number in for you.”
I walked back to the court, and Grant continued to tap on my phone.
Worried he might be phoning a friend in Japan, I said, “Hey, Grant, what’s taking so long?”
“I’ve almost got it,” he said.
The next evening, I clicked into “Photos” to locate a picture for my son, and there—big smile—was Grant. He had taken a selfie to surprise me and surprise me, he did.
That’s what I call special.