The Abilities Tennis Association promotes tennis programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities throughout the state of North Carolina.
ATA hosts four tournaments a year, including a national tournament that draws athletes from all over the United States.
By Alex Welch, special to USTA.com
The Abilities Tennis Association in December hosted its sixth annual Winter Chill, a tournament for special needs athletes at N.C. State University. This year’s event might have outdone all prior years, as 83 athletes traveled to participate at the J.W. Isenhour Tennis Center.
The Winter Chill tournament featured singles and doubles play, full- and short-court competition, clinics and player interaction with the N.C. State women’s tennis team. Kirstie Marx, Abilities Tennis executive director, said the partnership with the university creates a special afternoon for everyone involved.
“This is what makes this tournament unique," Marx said. "The State girls officiate all the matches. All the athletes got to play with the State girls, which is one of the highlights of the tournament. The girls were very giving. They even organized a dance for the evening."
The N.C. State women’s tennis team has been partnering with Abilities Tennis (formerly Adaptive Tennis Association of North Carolina) for six years now. Head coach Hans Olsen said he is proud of his team’s involvement with the tournament.
“The Winter Chill is a highlight to our year," Olsen said. "Our team appreciates the opportunity to learn from these amazing athletes. On that Saturday every year we see amazing things: joy, sportsmanship, hustle, skill and positive attitudes all over the tennis court. Kirstie is a great leader in our tennis community. Her volunteer team does an outstanding job organizing a first-class event. We’re very proud to partner with Abilities Tennis on this very special annual event.”
Marx said the athletes at the tournament look up to the N.C. State players, calling them “heroes” for their efforts on and off the court.
“You see how much fun the athletes are having," Marx said. "They are looking at these State girls as heroes, and they are really encouraging them.”
The Winter Chill takes place in Raleigh but support is shown from all across the region. This year, along with the 83 athletes, 100 volunteers and 40 parents, coaches and family members showed up to assist with activities throughout the day. Athletes came from Charlotte, Wilmington, Winston-Salem, Pinehurst and several other cities across the state. Some even ventured from South Carolina, and Western Wake Tennis Association and Raleigh Tennis Association each donated $1,500 to the tournament.
Marx typically plays leading role in setting up tournaments like this, but the Winter Chill is mainly engineered by six teenagers: Emily Ratliff, Marisa Anthony, Emma Marx, Chris Bollinger, Cassie Bollinger and Madi Vanarthos, all of whom dedicated hours of planning prior to the event.
Marx said several of the teen organizers have been putting the tournament on for multiple years. She’s seen the progression of their leadership skills, noting that while some were timid to speak in front of crowds at first, they’ve now stepped up and embraced their roles.
The Winter Chill also partnered with “Adopt a Unit” to collect socks for troops overseas. In between matches, athletes put socks together to send out and wrote cards for the troops. They even had the opportunity to show their thanks in a commercial that the troops will see.
In another memorable moment from the tournament, coach Olsen announced his team’s Feb. 8 match against Charleston Southern would be dedicated to Abilities Tennis. The athletes involved will be on the courts before matches that day with the players.
“I don’t know how we’re ever going to top this. It was amazing,” Marx said. “There’s nothing we would’ve changed. It all went so well.”
Abilities Tennis holds tournaments and clinics throughout the year. For more information on the organization and its efforts, visit www.atanc.org.