By Cari Buck, special to USTA.com
I was so surprised when I woke up Sunday morning and it was raining, but even a soggy summer morning was not going to dampen my spirits. I was headed off to the 2013 USTA/ITF Cruyff Foundation Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camp, and I couldn’t wait! When you bring together over 30 kids, ages 12-18, from six different countries, along with a team of coaches and volunteers and then let them loose on tennis courts for a week, it’s bound to be a good time.
Camp is truly an amazing week, full of inspiring moments, hard work and lots of laughs. This is my third year as a coach and it just keeps getting better each summer. It’s fun to see everyone, meet new campers and coaches and catch up with those returning from years past. It’s hard to explain how amazing and special this week at camp is for me -- it is truly one of my favorite weeks of the year. A few more adjectives I could use describe my feelings would be "inspired," "humbled," "motivated." I could go on and on.
We have now finished two full days at camp -- and believe me, they were really full days. Once we hit the courts, we started with some pushing laps and stretching to get everyone warmed up. Then it was time for everybody’s favorite: mobility drills. I think plenty of campers feel the way about mobility drills as I did about footwork drills as a kid, but they are incredibly important. The orange cones came out, and campers start moving. I love the sound of the chairs whizzing around the court at full speed.
As we moved onto ground strokes, reviewing stroke production and running drills, it was great to see how much the kids have progressed since last year. I also found myself closely observing the games of the new campers, and already I can tell this year’s tournament is going to be even more competitive than last year.
Next up we worked on serves: a little loosening up, and then the orange cones came out once more as we work on serve placement, keeping it deep, getting more spin. An entire basket through and no one has hit a cone yet, so I upped the ante. It never ceases to amaze me the accuracy kids have when free ice cream is at stake!
While I love being on court working with the kids, interacting with them off court is a treat too. I love hanging out, sharing stories and watching them interact with each other. While some of them have met before, and a few maybe know each other from some tournaments or camp last year, many of them have just met for the first time this week. It has only been two days and already it seems like they have known each other for much longer; laughing and joking, sharing photos and videos on their iPhones and razzing the coaches.
Kids are kids regardless of where they are from, what language they speak, or how good their groundstrokes may be. They love having fun, and I think I speak for all the coaches here when I say that we love having fun with them.
Today we took a short break from tennis, as the campers have been working so hard and they have earned a treat. It was all smiles as we headed off to spend the day at Universal Studios Hollywood, but first we had to make a quick stop off at Warner Bros. Studios for a meet-and-greet with late-night talk show star Conan O’Brien -- how cool is that! He met with the kids, took pictures, and made them all feel really special.
Next up it was off to Universal and the campers could not wait. We ate lunch at the Hard Rock Café, after which we broke into smaller groups and spread out around the park for a day of fun and adventure. Our crew headed off to The Mummy: The Ride, where we were allowed to ride not once but twice. Next up was the log flume-like Jurassic Park, and luckily it was a nice hot day because we got soaked! Transformers was next and the CGI effects were really amazing. After the crazy thrills of the lower park, we headed up for the tram tour, after which we rode the Simpsons and Shrek rides. A few of the campers in my group had never been to a theme park before, so it was fantastic to see them have so much fun.
We all met at the end of the day at Universal City Walk, where there were all kinds of street entertainers, magicians, musicians. As we waited for our whole gang to arrive, the campers began listening intently to one of the musicians sing. Realizing his audience was growing, he asked the kids to help him out with his next song. He gave them their cues -- clapping when he stomped his foot, for instance -- and he taught them the chorus to a favorite song of mine, "Lean On Me." The kids clapped, some sang, and one in particular began clapping, singing and dancing without a care in the world. Now this is a girl with some pretty severe disabilities, and as we watched her in total celebration, it just melted the hearts of several coaches. While all the campers are amazing in their own way, there are always a few that tug at the heart strings -- this special little girl from Guatemala, with a smile that lights up a room, never ceases to amaze me.
Back to the courts today as we continued to work on ground strokes, serves and point play. As I worked through drills with the campers, it was great to see not only their tennis games developing, but also the friendships that develop with each passing day. This is essentially why this camp was established years ago; by forging new friendships based on shared experiences, these kids grow both on and off the court.
We also finished up the junior tournament with some pretty great play in both the boys and the girls finals. Congratulations to Chris Herman, Lizabeth Soto, Carlos Muro and Auburn Smith on their tournament victories!
Tonight was our awards dinner. Every camper received a certificate from camp, and we also gave out some special recognition awards in the form of scholarships from the Baseline Wheelchair Tennis Foundation. This year, four lucky campers were honored for their outstanding attitudes, so another round of congratulations goes to Dustin Strelsky, Conner Stroud, Lauren Haneke-Hopps and Parker Smith. Job well done!
I have talked a lot about the campers this week and their incredible attitudes and spirit, but the camp also has amazing coaches. I feel honored to be a part of this team, to work side by side with some of the best wheelchair tennis coaches out there. Thanks for the fun and friendship -- I have learned so much from you all.
Today was the last day of camp and I keep harking back to just how special this past week has been. It’s been exhausting but wonderful. But before we go, there was still work to be done in the form of a morning session of station drills. This was the last chance for campers to get some final practice before heading home: forehands, backhands, serves, mobility and some point play. It remains amazing to see their progress in just five days of camp. Even on the last day, campers worked just as hard as they did on the first day. It’s been really inspiring to see them make the most of every minute.
We break for lunch and the airport runs begin. As more and more campers headed off to the airport, it was time for goodbyes. Bittersweet moments were shared – campers were happy to be headed home to family, but also sad to be leaving their new friends. A few final hugs and high-fives, and then it was over.
From reading this blog, you probably realize that I’m not one to conserve on adjectives. So, in this final round of reflection, here are a few additional words I use to describe this past week:
That’s the USTA / ITF Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camp, an absolutely amazing experience in which I am so proud and excited to share. Naturally, I am already counting the days until camp next year.