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Missouri Valley / Missouri

Gold Star Winners Grow The Game For Special Olympians And Young Athletes

Jeff Kessinger | June 05, 2020

The sport of tennis doesn’t grow without a little hard work.


USTA Missouri Valley, in honor of its 100th anniversary in 2020, is giving away 100 Gold Star awards to recognize the people doing that work.


This month we profile award winners Special Olympics Missouri and the Optimist Club of Rolla. Both groups use adaptive tennis to serve a wide variety of athletes.


Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization, with close to 5 million athletes in 170 countries. Missouri is home to 16,900 athletes, including many tennis players. Its Special Olympics program was founded in 1971.


“(We) transform lives through the joy of sport every day, everywhere,” Ken Petterson, the head tennis coach for the Fulton Special Olympics Missouri team, said. “We are also a global social movement. With initiatives to activate youth, engage kids with intellectual disabilities, build communities, and improve the health of our athletes — we're changing the game for people young and old and asking you to be a part of it all.”


The program has special meaning for Petterson. He helped launch the Special Olympics tennis program, which has grown from one athlete to 80. His son, Aiden, has been by his side throughout. Aiden started at age 5, shagging balls at practices and games. Now he’s an assistant coach and a Unified Partner — an athlete without intellectual disabilities who trains and competes on the same team. Aiden is a talented player in his own right and will play for Westminster College, in Fulton. But he is not the most decorated player in the Fulton program.


That title belongs to Jesse, who has won three gold medals, including one in the skills competition at last year’s Special Olympics Missouri State Outdoor Games. Jesse is legally blind and uses a special ball that jingles so he can hear and see it. He is only the second athlete in the history of Special Olympics Missouri to compete in tennis with a visual impairment. Ken calls it one of the proudest accomplishments of the program.


“Tennis is a life-long sport that anyone and everyone can enjoy,” Ken said. “If I, as a coach, show my love of the game of tennis to my athletes and Unified Partners, they will have fun and want to learn more about this wonderful sport. … I was pleasantly surprised (we won a Gold Star award), but at the same time very proud of our team, our athletes, and Unified Partners.”

Optimist Club of Rolla, meanwhile, uses special equipment to help young players succeed while they learn the game. That means younger players on smaller courts with tennis balls that move slower and bounce higher. Robert Barth, coordinator of the Optimist Club of Rolla’s tennis program since 2015, called the Gold Star award amazing.


“It is humbling to be recognized by the USTA Missouri Valley for contributions to the growing of the game of tennis in rural Missouri,” Barth said. “Optimist International's motto is ‘Friend of Youth’ and the organization also uses the branding statement, Bringing Out the Best in Youth, in our Communities, and in Ourselves.’”


Barth has a long background in tennis. He grew up in rural Kansas and played in USTA Missouri Valley events during high school. As an adult he coordinated and instructed youth tennis programs, helped coach the Rolla High School boys’ tennis team and is working on becoming a USTA umpire.


The Optimist Club’s tennis program has grown with the help of USTA Missouri. Paul Nahon, general manager of the Springfield Lasers and past USTA Missouri president, facilitated an annual visit to a Lasers match for participants and their families. The athletes got to play on the courts at Cooper Tennis Complex and meet Lasers coach JL de Jager and his players.


That support has been invaluable, as has the support from the Rolla community.


“The program has obtained support from the City of Rolla Parks and Recreation Department, Friends of Rolla Tennis, Rolla High School tennis team members and coaches, area businesses and local media,” Barth said. “The program is also the recipient of Serving Up Tennis Grants to acquire equipment and supplies. The Optimist Club of Rolla is composed only of volunteers and no fees are ever charged for any Optimist youth program.”


Barth said the program attracts more than 60 participants each summer and everyone receives a program T-shirt. That program has produced many Rolla High School tennis players, who are now giving back to the program that helped them get started.


“Many of the participants of our youth tennis program have not only played at the high school level but return as volunteer instructors for the (younger) participants. They have served as outstanding mentors and role models for our youth while continuing to build their leadership skills on-court.”


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