Francesca Martel tosses a tennis ball over her head and winds up for an overhand serve. Her racket connects with the neon ball with a satisfying “thwack,” and the serve clears the net and lands near the back of the court. She and her coach exchange a smile, and she leaves the court to make room for her sister, Elizabeth, who demonstrates an equally impressive show of skill.
“I think they’re ready,” says their coach, John Cesar, of Special Olympics of Florida, Sarasota County.
This weekend, the sisters, ages 15 and 14, respectively, will join 29 other Sarasota athletes as they head to the Special Olympics State Summer Games, in Orlando. Other events include bocce, track and field, cycling and soccer.
For the last few months, the girls, along with six other athletes, have met weekly in Arlington Park, where Cesar has coached them to develop their skills and techniques, including serves, groundstrokes and basic hand-eye coordination. But, Cesar says the experience is about more than just tennis fundamentals.
“It builds their confidence, and it teaches them about commitment,” he says. “It’s great to see their improvement over the season, in tennis and socially.”
Francesca and Elizabeth began participating in Special Olympics eight years ago, at the suggestion of a family member. Over the years, they’ve competed in swimming, gymnastics, bowling and equestrian events, and they’ve made a few trips to the state games, where they’ve earned gold, silver and bronze medals. This is their first year competing in tennis, and they performed well enough during the season to qualify for the state summer games.
“They love it,” says their mother, Lynette Wetherington. “It really helps them work on their skills, and it helps them socially to meet all the other athletes. It’s allowed them to open up more and be able to better communicate their wants and needs.”
At the competition, which takes place at Walt Disney World, athletes from all over the state will compete for medals, and Francesca and Elizabeth will have the opportunity to show off their newfound tennis skills.
“They’ll have a good time,” says Cesar. “I think they’re prepared to compete. They get a little nervous, but pressure is good — they perform well under pressure.”