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USTA Southern California
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Lauren Haneke-Hopps - Defines Special

Lauren Haneke-Hopps received the Special Achievement Award at the Junior Tennis Banquet.
Lauren Haneke-Hopps hits a forehand.
Lauren Haneke-Hopps serves
There is a reason that the Youth Tennis San Diego (YTSD) moniker puts "Youth" before "Tennis". When people come to the Barnes Tennis Center, most see tennis courts, but I see children. We use tennis as a vehicle to help youngsters become more successful in life. It is the reason I work at YTSD.

The Annual Junior Awards Banquet is always a highlight for the local tennis community. Honoring those who achieve above and beyond is a true feel-good moment, capturing all that is first-rate about kids today. At Barnes, I am used to being surrounded by youngsters, who work hard, excel on and off the court, and make the rest of us proud. Because of that, it is rare that I become emotional about the good I see happening. I expect it. However, ever so often, I am overwhelmed when I see how a youngster can actually be helped.

The story of Lauren Haneke-Hopps began for me over six years ago. My family was vacationing in Big Bear where we met another family with two children. Lauren, a blonde and blue-eyed beauty, was a little older than my boys. She was the most incredible little girl. There was nothing that she couldn’t do. She fished; she got in and out of boats; she swam; she went on the swings; and she played with such enthusiasm. She took the leadership role with her little brother and my boys, looking after them. Despite being in a wheelchair, her ability, not her disability was what I noticed. She was an incredible inspiration for my boys.

I told her mother, Susan Hopps-Tatum, about the wheelchair program at Barnes and explained how to get involved. After participating for two years, Lauren decided to try out for her Patrick Henry High School tennis team. Though she had never played competitive sports against able-bodied athletes, that didn’t deter her.

Karen Ronney, a Southern California Tennis Association Tennis Service Representative, and National Special Olympics instructor, was the varsity tennis coach at Patrick Henry. She started Lauren on a short court, with a smaller racquet to improve her hand-eye coordination. Lauren also mastered the knack of moving around the court in a specially designed sports wheelchair.

"Lauren has a huge desire to succeed in tennis and in life," Ronney said. "She has a positive attitude that is contagious. When one looks at her, one doesn’t see a girl in a wheelchair. What one sees a dynamic individual who is destined to be a leader in everything she does. I felt blessed the moment Lauren rolled into my life."

After countless hours of practice, Lauren tried out for the Patrick Henry junior varsity team. She felt an instant connection with her prospective teammates. Like her, many of them were easing into competitive tennis. "It doesn’t matter if I’m on the team," she told her mother, "I just want to play with these girls."

Lauren made the team, and her dream of playing on the high school squad came true. As a freshman, she became the first wheelchair player to compete in San Diego High School tennis (and possibly the state) against able-bodied players. Competition wasn’t new to Lauren. She had been part of teams before when attending wheelchair sports camps. But, now she was part of a team where the mention of "wheels" usually referred to how fast an athlete can run.

"She sees herself as an equal to everyone else," said Cheryl Gilbert, Patrick Henry’s junior varsity coach. "She doesn’t think she’s any different. She inspires me every day. If I have an ache or pain, I’ll look at Lauren and think, ‘No complaining today’."

Lauren lives with Sacral Agenesis, a congenital disorder that occurs in approximately one in every 25,000 babies born in the US. The lower section of her spinal column has failed to form, leaving her legs shortened and mostly nonfunctional. However, her quick smile and regular laughter make it easy to forget the wheelchair. "There are times when she’s tired, and there are challenges related to having a physical disability," her mother admitted. "But, she just overcomes them and doesn’t let it stop her."

Last September, Lauren and sophomore Kaitlin Wilson-Stenzel, another newcomer to the sport, were teammates when Lauren won her first high school doubles match. The victory over Mira Mesa was sealed by Lauren hitting a down-the-line winner. Her teammates rushed to embrace her. Lauren cried. Her mother cried. Her coach cried.

Six years after meeting a little girl in Big Bear, I sat at the Junior Awards Banquet, misty-eyed knowing the YTSD had played a role in what she had achieved. As Lauren accepted the Special Achievement Award, I know that she is a part of the organization’s success story. Her goal is to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in tennis and swimming. There is no doubt she will, and Youth Tennis San Diego will be cheering her on."

Kerry Blum

(Mark Winters Editor’s Note: Kerry Blum, the long serving Youth Tennis San Diego Executive Director, is the reason that YTSD has a sterling reputation for providing comprehensive programs for juniors of all ability levels throughout the District.)


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