As I approach my one-year anniversary as the Hamilton County coordinator, I've been looking back at all I discovered over the year. I knew when I started this adventure that I had a lot to learn, I just didn't realize how much or how quickly I'd need to learn it. I have had an incredible time reconnecting with the athletes I've known for many years and making new friends with the ones I'm meeting for the first time. Special Olympics is truly an incredible opportunity for everyone and I'm cherishing every moment.

One of the biggest lessons that I learned this year came from an unlikely source, our tennis coach. Although tennis is a Special Olympics Inc. sport, it's not a sanctioned sport in Indiana. Until becoming coordinator, I didn't even realize SOHC offered tennis to our athletes. I believe we are currently only one of 3 programs in the state that do offer tennis.

I know very little (okay, nothing) about the game of tennis, so I invited the head tennis coach, Nick Hennessey, out to dinner. I wanted to learn everything I could about how the program is run. I was shocked to learn how young our coach is, only 21 and he's been coaching for 5 years!! As he talked to me about tennis and the athletes that he's been coaching, I could tell he has a real passion for this program. He clearly loves tennis and he completely lit up as he talked about how many of the athletes had improved over the years. I was quickly sold on our tennis program.

Of course, I've spent many years working at the area level. Our only concern is competitions. I've planned and executed many, many tournaments for our athletes. Obviously, that was a big question for me, when and how do the athletes compete? Nick's answer surprised me. He said he wasn't sure any of his athletes would be ready to compete this year. Why can't they compete in skills, I asked? Can't we modify a competition to meet any skill level? Competition!! Competition - that's what we spend 8 weeks training for, right? Nick said, no. What are these athletes doing for 8 weeks?

Nick's answer was exactly what I needed to hear. It's what all our coaches need to hear. He said, "they're learning to play and love tennis."

We get so wrapped up in competition that it's easy to miss the big picture - the sport. If our athletes don't enjoy the game, they're not going to keep playing. If our athletes don't continue to learn and advance, then they're going to get bored. We often spend eight weeks training for a competition and we forget to spend time learning to love the sport.

I attended the first tennis practice of the season. There were athletes of all ages, practicing and learning at their specific skill level. There were almost as many volunteers as there were athletes. This allowed for the athletes to have individualized attention. Nick had created such a positive environment, that everyone wanted to be a part. Nick along with the other coaches ends each practice with a game. All the athletes walk away a winner and feeling positive.

In my hectic first year of paperwork and registrations, I'm grateful to be reminded of why I love Special Olympics - watching the athletes learn, love, and play the sports. I'm reminded that it's not about the gold medal, it's about showing up and giving our best. I realize that Special Olympics was founded and built on the spirit of competition, but what defines competition? For some, winning is simply getting through the day. If we can light a passion (or even a slight interest) for a sport in an individual, and it brings them joy, feeling of success, and keeps them moving and active - didn't we just win?