An event all their own

BURBANK TENNIS CENTER — The smiles on their faces were nearly matched by the pride% they took in perfecting their %skills.

For three days, athletes hit, ran, leaped and frolicked their way in an event geared just for them at the Burbank Tennis Center.

From the youngest 5-year-old player to athletes pushing 60, the name of the game was fun — with a good amount of instruction thrown in — at the fourth-annual Jensen-Schmidt Tennis Academy for Special Needs Individuals.

From Monday through Wednesday, athletes were given the opportunity to improve their tennis skills, as instructors and an army of volunteers put the players through practices, skills drills, coordination exercises and various other physical activities.

The academy was established and is designed to meet the sport-specific needs of children and adults with various afflictions.

“Everything we do for the athlete is scaled,” said Vince Schmidt, one of the academy's organizers. “That is a key term. Because we have such a diverse group of individuals who come here, some with Down syndrome, some with autism, some with a variety of different conditions that would impact their ability to play tennis, we have designed so many different drills that are scalable to meet their needs.”

Manning one of the stations on the 10 courts at the Burbank Tennis Center was Coach Joel Dacay. At the station, athletes were given the opportunity to kick a soccer ball around in a drill that improves their footwork.

“This is my fourth year working [the academy], and I just love it,” he said. “It is a wonderful experience to be able to work with these athletes and see what a good time they have out here It's great to see.”

Schmidt, who has served as a professional near St. Louis for more than 10 years, joined with former French Open doubles champions Murphy and Luke Jensen to form the nonprofit academy.

One of the athletes taking part in the academy was George Nichol. Nichol said he was a little apprehensive at first to participate in the drill to hit a tennis ball.

“I'm having lots of fun. I really like the tennis,” he said. “I didn't think I was going to be able to do it at first, but after three or four practice shots I did it.”

One of the unique aspects of the event at the Burbank Tennis Center is that all of the athletes get the opportunity to attend the academy at no cost. Along with three days at the academy, individuals were% also are provided with free equipment.

The ability for the athletes to attend at no cost was provided by the Greenelight Foundation. Under the direction of Bill Greene, the organization has sponsored the local event all four years.

Green and Greenelight Foundation Director Debra Gilmore were among a large group of volunteers who made sure the event ran smoothly. Along with parents giving a helping hand, members of the Burbank High Key Club served as “buddies” for many of the athletes, helping them get to the various stations and generally assisting them throughout the three days.

“I couldn't do this event without the volunteers,” Gilmore said. “The Key Club kids are dedicated, they are hard working and they love this event. We really need their help.”

Schmidt said he enjoys bringing his event to the Burbank Tennis Center, and is constantly impressed with the effort of the area's volunteers.

“They treat us well here and the people here are great,” said Schmidt worked at the prestigious Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, as well as with ATP and World Tennis Assn. tour players and Special Olympics athletes. “The buddies do a fine job and the athletes are able to play at a world-class facility with a world-class staff.

“Bill Greene and his staff do a tremendous job. It is because of him that we came here in the first place. They have been great.”

Along with the drills, for the first time attendees were treated to entertainment acts on center court each day, including a deaf break-dancer, a heavy metal guitarist and a demonstration by Burbank's Swordplay fencing studio.

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