When Charlie Lawless first picked up a tennis racket in 2007, he didn’t want to put it down.
But for Lawless, 26, who has an intellectual disability, there were scant opportunities for him to play matches. The Special Olympic had a tennis program, but the season lasted only a short part of the year. And, no one had organized a club in his Greensboro community for others whose lower IQs often make certain daily life skills a challenge.
“How can athletes get better if they never get to play?” Lawless asked.
Fast-forward just eight years. Lawless and more than 70 others from across the state on Saturday flocked to the tennis courts at N.C. State University to square off during an all-day tournament for players with intellectual disabilities. Hosted by Abilities Tennis of North Carolina, the tournament is now one of four competitions across the state each year that lure players and teams from Charlotte to Wilmington.
“There are tennis addicts. But, with Special Olympics, once the season is over, that’s it. Abilities Tennis wanted to create a way for this love of tennis to last all year,” said Lou Welch, executive director of Abilities Tennis of North Carolina, a non-profit launched in 2012.
The group is under the umbrella of the North Carolina Tennis Association and relies on the organization for grant funding. In addition to hosting tournaments each year, the group hosts clinics at local Parks and Recreation Departments to teach the sport to more players. In some communities, interest is so great that in places such as Orange County, as many as 30 players gather as a team to practice each weekend.
On Saturday, players as young as elementary school and as old as senior citizens squared off in doubles teams arranged by skill. N.C. State women’s tennis players worked the courts, refereeing and offering praise when players landed a nice swing.
In a morning match, Lawless clutched his racket with his left hand and stared intently across the net at his opponents as he unleashed hit after powerful hit. Lawless, like many of the players, practices every week and anticipates the chance to match his skills against the best across the state.
Kristine Hughes, 43 of Cary, and Lawless huddled between matches Saturday and recalled meeting at the first tournament in 2009. Hughes, too, had been seeking a way to put her sports appetite to use between Special Olympics seasons. Having played softball in high school, hitting balls with sticks felt like second nature to Hughes.
For both, Saturday’s tournament was as much about the camaraderie as competition. Lawless stood beside the court while Hughes squared off in a particularly tough match. He cheered for every return she delivered and delighted in explaining the game to other observers.
“See? There’s really nothing that a person with special needs can’t do sports-wise,” Lawless said.
Locke: 919-829-8927 or @MandyLockeNews
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