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Special Olympics Tennis: Lyn Nevins and Chrissy Nevins-Herbert

by Kathy Crockett

mother-daughter duo have turned volunteering into an inspirational art form...

The tennis courts are brimming with tennis players practicing their backhands, lobbing balls, and congratulating each other on good plays. I listened to the squeak of sneaker soles on the courts at Darien High School and the satisfying popping sound of a ball making contact with the sweet spot of a racquet. For these two hours every Saturday in the spring, the courts are devoted to the Darien Special Olympics tennis team. Laughter, banter, and eagerness replace the silent concentration of competitive tennis; but the most striking difference: the amount of coaches on the court. For every two Special Olympics athletes there is one coach or volunteer, but instead of feeling like spring training, it feels like a family reunion. In fact, it is exactly that for the mother and daughter coaching team of Lyn Nevins and Chrissy Nevins-Herbert. Lyn and Chrissy, and many of the other coaches, have spent more than a decade of spring and summer Saturdays sharing their knowledge and love of the sport with each other and the athletes.

Barbara Fitzpatrick, a special education teacher at the time, initiated Darien’s Special Olympics Tennis Team thirteen years ago as a way to offer the sport to a group of people for whom sports wasn’t a given opportunity. One of the first people she wanted to bring on was 10-year-old Chrissy, but she was unsure of how Chrissy would react to working with people with special needs. It turned out that Barb needn’t have worried; Chrissy wasn’t a bit apprehensive; she just wanted to help. Barb—and the rest of the Darien team—also gained an added bonus: Chrissy’s mother, Lyn. Tennis had always bonded the two together, and working with Special Olympics provided the opportunity for both to work and learn from the other.

Lyn and Chrissy pose outside the courts
Lyn and Chrissy pose outside the courts

Thirteen years later, the mother-daughter duo have turned volunteering into an inspirational art form, combining their tennis skills with their ability to work with people with intellectual disabilities. Their shared passion has continually brought Lyn and Chrissy back together, even as Chrissy graduated from high school and college. Now a medical student at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Chrissy has always made the time—and the long drives—to join her mother and the athletes at the courts. Along with Barb, they continue to work together to organize the Darien team, as well as help with games at the local, regional, state, and now national level.

Working with the Special Olympics athletes is a way to give back. “Tennis has given us so much…we get a lot of our friendships through tennis…my main form of exercise is through tennis,” says Lyn, as Barb nods and adds that the athletes can see through them that Tennis can be a lifelong sport. “The three of us has a quote we love,” adds Lyn. “(Special Olympics) is a microcosm of a perfect society. Nobody’s angry with anybody. Nobody’s saying come on come on you’re holding us up. Everybody’s involved everybody’s cheering for everybody...it’s really fun.”

Sometimes the fun is found within the challenge of the sport. Tennis is one of the more difficult Special Olympics sports because it involves hand-eye coordination in addition to physical strength and the ability to do some fancy footwork on the court. Chrissy and Lyn have been working with the team for such a long time that they have been able to see a great many changes, as they themselves, have grown with the organization. They have seen tremendous progression in the athletes, watching some move from skills level, where matches aren’t played, but the focus is on hitting the ball and tennis basics, to competition level, where matches are played according to national tennis standards and rules. Many of the coaches on Darien’s tennis team pair up with one of the athletes to compete in unified doubles competitions. (The other competitive opportunities are singles and doubles.)

Lyn has watched Chrissy grow from a little girl, working on skills with Special Olympics athletes, to playing with Unified Partner, Grace Knechtle, and winning state championships year after year. Grace, who has been playing with Chrissy since 1992 says that Chrissy has always had a talent for tennis. When they first joined together as Unified Partners, Chrissy wasn’t even a teenager and Grace was twice her age. “She was young, (but) Chrissy was the number one player for Darien High School—she is a very good tennis player…she’s very quick.” Chrissy started out tossing a ball to Kimmy, a Special Olympics skills athlete. Chrissy would toss a ball larger than a tennis ball just right to ensure that Kimmy could work on her confidence with hitting the ball. Like the other athletes, Kimmy was working on self-esteem that she could take into her daily life. And Chrissy was learning that tennis was more than just fun.

Last year mother and daughter shared the stand at the state championships as Lyn and her Unified Partner, Justin McDowell, tied Chrissy and Grace. Their competitive spirit is joyful, unmarred by an overwhelming desire to win. “We’re all good players,” says Justin. For Grace competing against friends and teammates is “…wonderful. It’s a challenge for me.” Neither Justin nor Grace comes to practices and matches to win. They come for the camaraderie and support, especially from the coaches, partners, and friends they have in Lyn and Chrissy. Above all Grace values the laughter that comes from her long relationship with the mother-daughter duo, especially after her father died over the winter. “We laugh together. We love to laugh. I try to ease up the pain from my father…that (playing tennis) has been real wonderful.” Justin seconds that: “They’re good people and they’re fun to play with.” It is obvious by listening to Justin and Grace that a simple tennis match can mean so much more.

Unified Partners Justin & Lyn and Chrissy & Grace
Unified Partners Justin & Lyn and Chrissy & Grace

Lyn remembers the day it really clicked for Chrissy. “Chrissy turned to me one year after state games and said, ‘I get now why we do this.’ I said, ‘what to you mean?’ There was a particular athlete and she really took a liking to Chrissy. She was having a few problems that year and she and Chrissy just talked and talked and talked. As we were walking back to the car, she said, ‘Mom, this is all about Christy and anybody else like her.’ It was like a light went off for her and she realized ‘I really do make a difference here.’” Moments like these are wonderful for any parent, and tennis (and special Olympics) has made so many of them possible. “Tennis (has given) us a lot of good time together,” says Lyn. She adds, “It’s been terrific being with Chrissy... She’s such a sensitive and insightful young woman. I get to be her mother and watch all this.” Lyn jokes, “I’m actually slightly proud. You may have noticed…”

“The individuality of tennis is really hard,” says Chrissy. But you wouldn’t know it by watching Chrissy and Lyn or any of the Special Olympics Tennis Team members. With Chrissy and Lyn, it has always been a team effort—they even finish each other’s sentences. While other teens were hoping that their parents would hide behind a tree if they came at all, Chrissy would say, “Come and stand close so I can hear your voice.”

It’s the voices and words of encouragement and enthusiasm that really do make Special Olympics tennis a lively and exhilarating sport. “It’s a cliché--when you give you get,” says Lyn, “but WE GET, we get.” They get weekly calls from Grace, thanking them for “everything.” Justin makes the hour and a half car ride from his Wethersfield home to the Darien tennis courts weekly. When the annual state games come around, which always coincide with Lyn’s birthday weekend, one of the athletes is sure to call in with an order for cake and soda to celebrate the occasion. And it is more than just tennis and a close friendship shared between Lyn, Chrissy, and Barb that propelled Barb to secure my promise to place the focus of this article on Chrissy and Lyn. “This mother-daughter team gives so much of themselves to the sport, to the team.” All the hugs, smiles, and the athletes, parents, and coaches who linger on even after practice has run overtime are surely a large indication that Lyn and Chrissy are making Special Olympics and tennis even more special for all involved.

Page created on 5/20/2006 1:48:40 PM

Last edited 1/5/2017 8:26:52 PM

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