Tennis program seeks inclusion, diversity

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John Laing steps onto the tennis courts at Pinafore Park on Thursday evening, something he’s done for the last nine years. He’s here to run a tennis program dedicated to inclusion and diversity.

Laing has led a St. Thomas special athletes tennis program for almost a decade and he’s not slowing down. The program offers tennis instruction to people with developmental or physical disabilities.

Laing had played tennis is high school and college, and since he was very young he has been involved in Special Olympics. Laing is a teacher with the Thames Valley district school board and taught special needs students for about seven years.

“It was a natural thing for me to do, combine the enjoyment of sport I like and played and working with special needs individuals,” Laing said.

As an extra incentive Tennis Canada invites the coaches and players to the Rogers Cup every year. They’re given VIP tickets and an executive suite because the program is one of a kind in Canada.

“It’s the first thing our athletes say, during our first practice, ‘What day are we going to the Rogers Cup?’” Laing said.

All skill levels are welcome. Laing said he sees improvement in his players over time. The most skilled started with the very basics of the sport.

“We don’t actually turn anybody away. So, we’ve got kids that are Grade 6, 7, 8, all the way to adults who are in their early 60s,” Laing said. “We accept anybody.”

The program meets every Thursday at the Pinafore Park tennis courts. They’re broken into skill level groups and given tennis instruction by experienced coaches.

“The first thing we want them to do is have fun,” Laing said. “My coaches, they make sure that all the techniques and instructions are fun activities.”

Although the program runs out of St. Thomas Laing said he wants people from surrounding communities to come out as well. The program has people from London, Aylmer and everywhere in between.

Russ Thomson’s son Noah, 15, has been in the program for three years and has developed skills both on and off the court as a result. Noah, who has autism, had never played tennis before joining the program, but his parents thought it might be an active outlet for their teenage son.

“He doesn’t do well in competitive environments,” Russ said.

Noah’s parents had signed him up for baseball before but it didn’t work out.

“He wanted to be the kid going out there and hitting the homerun every time. That doesn’t happen all the time,” Russ said. “This opportunity came up for the tennis … and we thought that’d be a great opportunity for him.”

The Thomsons drive all the way from London to St. Thomas every Thursday so Noah can participate in a sport he’s grown to love.

“It’s a great social opportunity for him to meet with other people who aren’t just kids on the autism spectrum or even kids for that matter,” Russ said.

Noah’s tennis skills have improved significantly.

“I think that opportunity to go out and practice in with it mostly just being a fun environment and a social opportunity really has been a great experience for him too. He just seems to … have some more confidence in himself. He seems to deal with frustration and upset a lot easier than he used to,” Russ said.

Those interested in signing up can come to practice on Thursdays from 6 to 7 p.m. at Pinafore Park or go on the program’s website at\tennisspecialathlete. The cost is $10 for the season, which runs from June to August.

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