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Courtesy Lake Mary (Florida) Times Magazine

Written by Chip Colandreo:

How many international Olympians do you know? Well, meet Lake Mary’s Brittany Tagliareni. On the tennis court, she can do just about anything, like put devastating topspin on a volley right down the line. She can best opponents twice her size and double her age while sporting an incandescent smile that competitors would find charming if her skills weren’t so intimidating. She’s the best player in the country by way of her recent first-place finish at a national championship tournament, and in June she’ll represent Team USA at the Olympics in Athens, Greece.

It’s what Brittany can’t do that will take her to Athens in 2011, instead of the London Olympics in 2012. Brittany can drop a backhand on the chalk, but she can’t put her own hair in a ponytail. She can serve aces on demand, but she can’t apply her own sunscreen before a match. You wouldn’t think it to see her work on the court, but Brittany, like the Olympics she fully expects to dominate, is special.

“As an infant, Brittany just didn’t start crawling, or walking, or talking like other kids her age,” says Brittany’s mom, Catherine. “At first, doctors told us to be patient. Eventually they called it Pervasive Developmental Disorder, and I didn’t really know what that meant. It wasn’t until she was about seven or eight years old that we first heard the word, autism.”

From infancy on, Brittany has struggled with many of the day-to-day tasks the rest of us take for granted. A lack of fine motor skills and physical coordination makes routine activities, like getting dressed, a major undertaking for Brittany. As Brittany grew up, Catherine and her husband, Tony, refused to let the autism and its physical, mental, and communicative manifestations keep Brittany from engaging in the many activities enjoyed by her peers, but Brittany always struggled to keep up. That is, of course, until she discovered tennis only a few years ago.

“We decided to give it a try, and we could tell immediately that Brittany liked it,” says Catherine, “but she had to learn the skills in a much different way. I’d literally have to talk her through the individual components of a tennis swing over and over again as she was hitting. I’d say, ‘Racket back, turn your hand, POW! Racket back, turn your hand, POW!’ over and over again until she understood how to move her hands and arms. Even today, you can sometimes hear her during a match speaking the moves as she’s doing them. It’s a different way of teaching her, but she can do what anyone else can do.”
The method worked, and Brittany quickly began rising up the ranks of regional, state, and national Special Olympics competitions. Special Olympics maintains a variety of divisions in each sport to give physically and mentally disabled participants of all ability levels a chance to compete and win. At the highest levels, though, Special Olympians demonstrate skills indistinguishable from traditional athletes. Because competitors are grouped by ability rather than age or experience, Brittany had to beat men and women (some of them tennis veterans in their 40s) to earn her trip to Greece as part of Team USA. In Athens, she’ll go up against some of the finest tennis players in the world, disabilities be damned.

“I can’t wait to see Greece and meet all the people,” Brittany says, beaming, though her sentences are clipped. As tough as the competition will be for her, mom Catherine’s struggle might be tougher.
“This trip to Greece will be the first time in Brittany’s life she’ll be away from either myself, Tony, or her brother A.J. for any length of time,” Catherine explains. Special Olympics rules stipulate athletes at the World Summer Games must travel separately from their families and have minimal contact during the competition. Because Brittany requires so much daily assistance, she’s never gone a night apart from her family. “It’s torture for us, but it would be worse torture for her to deny Brittany this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Tennis has given her so much, and she’s so exceptionally good at it.”
It’ll be coach’s job to pull back her hair and smear on the sunblock, but once Brittany steps on the court in Athens, she’ll be in complete command.

Original Article: http://www.lifemagazines.com/interactive/2011/5-LML/74.html

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