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Athletes from across Maryland compete at state Special Olympics competition

Samantha Hogan
Frederick News Post

Monica Evans, 29, walked off the tennis court from her doubles match and sat down on the grass. She’ll turn 30 next month, and while she had just played at the highest difficulty level offered at the state Special Olympics competition on Saturday, it wasn’t the biggest match of her career.

athletes-from-across-maryland-special-olympics.jpgIn 2014, Evans was one of Maryland’s tennis champions and had the chance to compete in the Special Olympics USA National Games in New Jersey.

“It was huge,” Evans said, even compared to the long line of packed tennis courts at the PNC Sports Complex at Mount St. Mary’s University, where the annual state competition was being hosted.

Approximately 500 athletes and unified partners competed on Saturday in flag football, powerlifting and tennis, said Kira Northrop, director of communications for Special Olympics Maryland.

Each athlete qualified to participates at the state competition by completing two county-level competitions. They were then paired up with a unified partner — whose role it is to assist the athlete and keep the game moving — or another Special Olympics athlete for the day of competition.

Howard County’s Special Olympics tennis team is currently training 39 kids, said Colleen Donovan, who helps coordinate the team. Her son Glenn, 20, also participated in Saturday’s matches.

Glenn plays doubles with Neill Hudson, who is in his third year volunteering as a unified partner. Glenn has been participating in Special Olympics for nearly a decade, and this year was the first time the duo was paired up. They had a good showing and won their first match of the day, Glenn said.

“This year he’s up’ed his game,” Donovan said. “The games he played today were more challenging.”

The best part about working with the athletes is that they’re not phony, Hudson said. They show true friendship and love, which is what keeps him coming back as a volunteer at matches and weekly practices.

Nancy Van Winter, the Howard County tennis coach, said she treats the 39 athletes like her own kids. She played tennis for the United States Tennis Association for 22 years, and holds her athletes to the same rules and standards — pointing out if even a toe is over the line.

Van Winter also coaches Evans and helped get her to the national competition in 2014.

“I remember the moment she hit the ball over the net [for the first time],” Van Winter said.

Now, Evans is a level five player and a seasoned competitor.

Special Olympics is designed for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. However, several athletes take private lessons or go on to compete on their high school varsity teams, Donovan said.

“I think people underestimate their capabilities,” she said.

Van Winter will begin training four athletes and two unified partners for the next national games starting in January. The athletes and partners were selected from the pool of winners from last year’s state games and will compete in Seattle in July.

The Howard County program had some fierce competitors for Frederick County’s Special Olympics tennis team — which is now led by Rolf Schroeder — to face off with on the court.

Frederick County’s team brought eight athletes with them to the state competition, and a few were doing very well by the halfway mark in the day’s competition, he said.

“It’s tough sometimes, but our kids are doing really well and they’re focused on getting better,” Schroeder said.

Jensen Ritter, 15, laid in the sun as she waited for her next match. She is a unified partner for her Oakdale High School classmate Eric, who is also in her foundations of technology class. Neither Jensen nor Eric knew how to play tennis at the beginning of the season, but they’ve been figuring it out together at practices after school.

“He’s better than me at it,” Jensen said, who also relies on Eric to tell her the score.

The pair won their first match and were waiting to be called back on the court for their second. Currently, Jensen is the only Oakdale High School student helping with the Special Olympics program, but several of her friends have expressed interest in joining having seen her and Eric’s work.

Friendship was a common theme at the state event. Jamie Sprague, 17, laid out across a set of folding chairs inside the Knott ARCC gym as he and his friend Kevin Ruprecht, 21, waited for their time at the bench.

The two young men train at Gold’s Gym and go to Damascus High School together. Both became interested in power lifting and their friendship grew from there, Jamie said.

This was the first year Jamie has tried power lifting, and already he bench-presses 80 pounds. After Saturday, he was looking forward to getting back to the gym with Kevin and lifting more weight.

Photo courtesy of Bill Green.

Samantha Hogan
Frederick News Post