The "Unified Tennis Games" were first conceived and developed by Steve Kaplan at Bethpage Park Tennis Center in 2003 as part of The Special Olympics program he and Bethpage Park Tennis Co-Director Keith Kambourian have hosted weekly since opening the facility in 1999.
Eight high school varsity and tournament tennis players were paired with intellectually challenged athletes for an eight weeks instructional, mentorship and practice program. The Games culminated in a fun and competitive round-robin tournament run in conjunction with The Special Olympics of New York.
"It's a great and needed recreational and athletic opportunity since these Special Olympians cannot advocate for themselves," said Kaplan. "This is a needed program and I'm so thankful to have had the great support of The New York State Department of Parks, Bethpage State Park and the wonderful volunteers like head coach Ken Walker whose daughter Sabrina has been a participant since the start of the program."
This year's Unified program was organized by Kaplan with help from his long-time student Hannah Camhi, now a sophomore at Brown University.
"Hannah really got the program going this year," said Kaplan. "She brought tremendous enthusiasm to the program and did most of the work."
The Unified Tennis Games Tournament will be held during the 2014 New York Tennis Expo on June 1.
Camhi said, "I was inspired by a few of the past participants that I've spoken to who said that it had really been a memorable experience and I wanted to be a part of it. I cannot wait for the tournament on June 1."
Kenneth Walker, long-time tennis coach with the Special Olympics said, "It's a great program that's been held here at Bethpage State Park for the past 15 years."
Walker's 41-year-old daughter, Sabrina, is involved with the program.
"It's held every week from the third week of September to the first week of June, with players taking part in drills and practices to prepare themselves for competition," said Walker.
Participants this year included:
►Jackie Bukzin (Eastport-South Manor)
►Kaitlyn Byrens (Massapequa)
►Aimee Manfredo (Shoreham-Wading River)
►Gabby Raziel (Half Hollow Hills East)
►Julia Raziel (Half Hollow Hills East)
►Vanessa Scott (Half Hollow Hills East)
Credit photos to Sasha Lipps