By Randy Kindred
Amanda Gonzalez’s progress on the court is easy to track. A 22-year-old from Aurora, she has piled up Special Olympics gold medals in impressive fashion.
“I have 19,” she said during the Special Olympics Illinois State Tennis Tournament on Saturday, August 20, at Bloomington’s Evergreen Racquet Club.
A few hours later, Gonzalez added to her collection, earning her 20th gold medal with a 6-0, 6-0 victory in the finals of her division.
So when she says, “I’m getting better,” the statistics – and medals – bear her out.
Yet, what Gonzalez has gained through Special Olympics Illinois competition cannot be fully measured in gold.
“She has met a lot of friends through this,” said LeAnn Gonzalez, Amanda’s mother. “She played four years of high school (Waubonsie Valley High School) and that inclusion was huge for that. She has a lot of peer friends through tennis.”
Gonzalez made her first trip to state in middle school, competing in the skills competition. She picked up the game quickly and soon was playing Unified doubles and singles.
“After regionals (the first year), she had us going every night after dinner to the high school to hit and practice because she loved it,” LeAnn Gonzalez said.
More recently, Amanda was hitting balls with her mother and father, Larry, in preparation for the state tournament, 11 years after beginning her tennis journey.
Two against one may not seem fair, but …
“Both of us were on one side of the court and she was playing us and guess who won?” LeAnn said.
Amanda is winning off the court as well. She participated in Project Search last year at Central DuPage Hospital. After three 10-week internships, the goal was to land paid inclusive employment. Amanda was hired at Tap In Pub in Naperville and works in the kitchen, washing dishes, rolling silverware, etc.
In October, she and her parents will travel to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for Amanda to compete in the North American Championships. It will be her second appearance in the tournament.
“She just loves to play,” Larry Gonzalez said. “She enjoys competition, so we’ve seen her grow. Now she’s learning the strategy of the game. Before it was just hitting and playing. Now, she’s getting it down the lines and that sort of thing.”
Silent may be overstating it. Yet, there is not a lot of chatter between Louis Pisani, 24, of Naperville and his Unified doubles partner, Barry King of Oswego.
Among Louis’ disabilities is selective mutism, according to his mother, Kish Pisani. Thus, he is very quiet, she said.
King, a 6-foot-5 senior and tennis standout at Oswego High School, is quiet by nature as well.
“There’s no chatter, but if you watch them on the court, they’re communicating with non-verbal communication,” Kish Pisani said. “They’re actually ideal partners. It’s good for Louis because sometimes people try to communicate for him. Barry is not going to communicate for him.”
Pisani and King have been Unified partners for four years. They met when King was a player and Pisani a manager for a competitive travel basketball team.
“It’s really just for fun,” said King, who hopes to play tennis in college. “We have a lot of fun when we play.”
Asked if he gets conversation out of Pisani, King smiled and said, “Here and there.”
First taste of state
Twelve-year-old Kenneth Blake of Waukegan experienced the State Tennis Tournament for the first time.
Blake participated in the skills competition and proudly displayed his silver medal.
His parents, Naomi and Preston Blake, said the Special Olympics have been good for their son, who also has participated in athletics (track and field), basketball and bocce.
“He gets to know people, the social part,” Naomi said. “Kids with disabilities, they’re just in the house maybe. We try to keep him involved. It (tennis) is very natural for him. I’m more nervous than he is.”
Click here to view the results from the 2022 State Tennis Tournament. To see a complete list of all State Championship competitions, click here.