Despite the searing heat that enveloped the area Monday, Susie
Schallert stayed cool with a refusal to lose her grip.
Swinging a tennis racquet on the green cement courts at the
Burbank Tennis Center, the 38-year-old chose to remain focused
hitting backhands and forehand shots during several drill sessions.
She also sported a cap to help keep her cool.
“I used to play tennis three years ago, and there’s nothing like
hitting the ball over the net,” Schallert said. “I even hit one of
the instructors in the head with a ball.”
Schallert was one of 59 participants with Down syndrome who took
part in the Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Individuals with Down
Syndrome Monday and Tuesday at the Burbank Tennis Center. The academy
was established and designed to meet the sport-specific needs of
children and young adults with the affliction.
Schallert, a North Hollywood resident, had plenty of ambition to
help her master the proper footwork needed to put herself in the
right position to return a shot. The other 10 people in her group
cheered her on, including her boyfriend, Blair Williamson.
“I wanted to come out and participate,” said the 26-year-old
Williamson, who lives in North Hills. “It’s fun to be out there
because I’ve never played tennis before.
“I watched it on TV a lot, and I like learning all of the drills.”
There was more in store for each participant than just learning
tennis skills. All the athletes were given the racquets and the other
items they used so they can continue to improve by playing on their
Former French Open doubles champions Luke and Murphy Jensen, who
helped teach participants Tuesday, teamed up with professional Vince
Schmidt to form the academy.
“It’s been a smashing success across the country, Schmidt said. “I
have a 4-year-old son [Jonas] with Down syndrome,” said Schmidt, who
has been a professional in the St. Louis area for more than a decade.
“I knew nothing about the syndrome, and I wanted to do something for
the sake of it.
“I called tennis federations and couldn’t find a program to adapt,
so I wanted to design one of our own programs.
“It’s about getting to know the Down community out here because
Burbank didn’t really have one, and you can give them access [to an
environment] that can be utilized more.”
Schmidt is the director of the Tennis at Glen Echo Country Club in
Normandy, Mo. Over the years, he has worked at the prestigious Nick
Bollettieri Tennis Academy, and well as with ATP and World Tennis
Assn. tour players and Special Olympics athletes.
The Jensen brothers, known for their enthusiastic and boisterous
style on the court, have enjoyed a long and successful career in
They were ranked as high as fourth in doubles and captured the
French Open title in 1993.
Glendale resident Steve Starleaf, who is the center’s executive
director, said the specific environment the academy provides is for
the participants to hone their skills along with learning about
physical training and the opportunity to take part in games and other
Starleaf, who graduated from Burbank High, helped organize the
Assn. of Tennis Professionals Challenger of Burbank from 1997-2004.
That event featured stars like Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.
Starleaf wanted to foster a broader spectrum and that’s why he was
glad to accommodate the academy.
“I wanted to steer a new course toward nonprofit and reaching out
to the community,” Starleaf said. “The ATP Challenger of Burbank was
for the elite and that put the center on the map.
“It will be a boom for us because we will be a Down syndrome
center, and we will start dedicating more court time to people with
Down syndrome. We want to keep the ball rolling.”
On the first day of the event the academy hosted a group of local
dignitaries, including Burbank Mayor jef Vander Borght, City Manager
Mary Alvord and Park, Recreation and Community Services Director Mike