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Jodi's Dream Team, Part Of New Jersey's Special Olympics, Is A Real Inspiration

Jody's Dream Team
Jody's Dream Team
Jody's Dream Team

When Jodi Hadam aged out of the Somerset County Park Commission’s Therapeutic Recreation (TR) tennis program, she was disconsolate. The program headed by tennis pro Mike Watson offers children and teens with developmental disabilities the opportunity to learn and play tennis for five weeks every spring.  At the time, the program was limited only to those between the ages 12-18. The program has now expanded and includes a children’s program as well as one for young adults, thanks to Jodi’s persistence.

Though Jodi had aged out of the program she knew wanted to keep playing and approached coach Leslie Van Dorn, a PTR member and USTA league player, for more than a year asking her to start a program for individuals her age. Finally, Coach Leslie relented and decided that if she has the opportunity to enjoy tennis so much, why shouldn’t Jodi?

In 2015, the Jodi and Leslie formed a team of two, practiced and entered the NJ Special Olympics Summer Games, where Jodi played singles and the pair played Unified Doubles.  Unified Doubles offers a developmentally disabled athlete the opportunity to pair with a coach or other tennis player to compete.  The Summer Games involves a two night stay at the College of New Jersey, and offers not only tennis competition, but also a chance to mingle with hundreds of other Special Olympians from a multitude of other sports. 

After this great experience Jodi was hooked!  Jodi gave Coach Leslie a handmade card with a racquet and ball and the words, “I love tennis” in bright red crayon. 

Jodi wanted to grow her team and recruited some friends.  Jason Chen, a player from the existing TR tennis program, and Madolyn Robins, Jodi’s friend from summer camp were recruited by Jodi and Jodi’s Dream Team was born.  Currently, the team has 12 athletes with developmental disabilities athletes competing at every level of the game and achieving beyond what they thought possible.  Unlike many other Special Olympics teams, Jodi’s Dream Team practices year-round.

In 2018, Special Olympian Jian Li was ranked #2 in singles and #1 in unified doubles in New Jersey, earning his gold medal in doubles with Bridgewater High School tennis player, John Gitterman.  Madolyn was the #2 woman in NJ in 2017, and went on to briefly play USTA at the 3.0 level.   Jason, who didn’t meet the requirements his first two years of play, continued to work hard on his game, and joined his first NJ Summer Games the summer of 2018, gaining a large cheering section, a self-accomplished smile and his first solo overnight.  Mahdi Hall boasts a perfect forehand on both sides, hitting with both his left and right hand.  Tianna Parker often sports fancy sunglasses and headgear, takes a deep breath before every serve, and has great groundstrokes.  Tiny Kayla Port is often paired against much bigger men and takes great satisfaction in figuring out how to beat them.  Multi-talented athlete, Katie Hannan, runs down every ball with a big smile on her face.  Michael O’Brien has manners as perfect as his tennis game; his smile lights everyone’s day.  Daniel Li has perfect form on every tennis stroke, but most enjoys purposely stepping on the baseline before he serves to receive the joking rebuke of his coach, “No foot faults, Daniel!”  Michael Thampoe follows in the footsteps of his father, Immac (Casey) Thampoe, who has captained a multitude of USTA teams.  Hannah Huang and Carolin Cheeli, cheer every time they get a serve over the net.   

“One thing I like more than anything else,” says volunteer coach Matt Gitterman, a 4.5 USTA player, “is that our team offers the opportunity to play to every level of player.  We take players who have never lifted a racquet, who do not yet have the power or ability to serve over the net, and we slowly move them back from service line to baseline.”

Jodi’s Dream Team is currently believed to be the only NJ team to offer a skills tournament.  Volunteer Lucy Revercomb earned the Gold Award, the highest award that the Girl Scouts offer, by planning and directing the skills tournament.  The skills tournament gained the team two new fledgling members, Tianna and Carolin who are just as enthusiastic as the other team members as evident by Tianna shouting out after her first Sectional tournament, “I love tennis!”  Her mother gushed, “I never thought she could do this!  She loves it so much!” 

“This team offers us so much” said Carolyn’s father.  “It’s tough to be a parent of a special needs child, and this team offers parents a support network.” As the athletes practice, the parents watch, and share ideas, whether it is about housing options for the athletes as they become adults, work options, or financial assistance tips.

Not only did the team grow with players but volunteers began “knocking on the door” wanting to help mentor the athletes.  Bridgewater High School tennis players Lucy Revercomb and Nitya Subramaniam  along with other high school players from the area, John Gitterman, Abigail Russano, and Gabrielle Billington, joined as volunteers; volunteers who have won County and State Championships.   Gabrielle helped her Pingry team win the Somerset County Girls HS tournament and Abigail and Nitya helped their Bridgewater High School teammates win the State Group IV championship this past year.   Tennis is not the only accomplishment of these teens; all are National Honor Society students and when Nitya was accepted to her first-choice college, the Admissions Counselor specifically referenced Nitya’s Special Olympics involvement.

The teens are joined by adult volunteers: nurses, lawyers, J&J employees, computer programmers, accountants, CPA’s and parents, including Deborah Conover, Robin Hall, Matt and Nancy Gitterman, Chris Van Dorn and Jean Zhang,  The teen and adult volunteers include eight USTA members.

Coach Leslie Van Dorn stated “The thing that strikes me most is the impact of one person taking the initial step.  Jodi got us started with her persistence and then my friend, Harvey Rich, encouraged me and helped me to get funding to practice year-round.  I never in a million years expected that those first little first steps would blossom into this huge, beautiful team of people, and impact so many lives in so many ways.  We are family!”

For more information on the Somerset County Therapeutic Recreation program, please contact Mike Watson at advwatson@aol.com.

To learn more about the New Jersey Special Olympics program, link to: www.sonj.org/sports/select-sport/tennis

 

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