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Tuesday, Sep 23, 2014
Preps

Harbour Island tennis program hits growth spurt


Published:   |   Updated: July 22, 2013 at 10:01 AM

TAMPA - The odds of Paige Leavy and Ryan Fisher becoming friends were slim to none before this summer.

Leavy is 15, about to be a sophomore at Tampa Prep and one of the best tennis players in Tampa.

Fisher is 27, lives in Riverview with his parents and is a Special Olympics tennis medalist.

On Tuesday, Leavy and Fisher met for the first time at Harbour Island Athletic Club for a Tennis For Fun camp, organized for athletes with special needs.

"I was a little nervous," said Leavy, who spearheaded the free camp, the first of its kind at Harbour Island.

"I was hoping to learn," Fisher said.

By Thursday afternoon - after battling through two days of rain that led to indoor drills and dancing on racquetball courts - Leavy and Fisher were hugging with huge grins for a picture.

"She was nice and she showed me technique," Fisher said. "It was a lot of fun."

Leavy was nothing short of overwhelmed.

"If (the 15 campers) had as much fun as I did then I know they had a great time," said Leavy, a natural at teaching and interacting and playing with the campers. "This started because I wanted to give something back because I have been gifted with so much.

"Then to see them be so happy and grateful was amazing. I learned so much about them and I learned a lot about myself."

Welcome to Tennis For Fun, a program started in 2000 by then Jesuit player Nathan Moore and carried on for 13 years by Moore's mother, Judy, at Brandon Sports and Aquatics Center and at Hillsborough Community College.

The program, funded 100 percent by volunteers and donations, now has more than 100 athletes and appears to be hitting a growth spurt.

"It's magic," said Dominic Owen, the high-performance tennis coach at Harbour Island and Paige's coach, who volunteered his services. "It was so interesting to see how the campers (ages 7 to 47) responded to the program, and how Paige and the volunteers responded to the campers."

Owen and the Leavys, including parents Selena and Jim and brother Ryan, along with 10 of Paige's friends, all said they'd like to start the tradition of a yearly camp at Harbour Island.

That would be just fine with Ryan Fisher and his twin brother Bryan, and with Rob Engelhardt and Christina Herrington, and Trisha Berry and Zach Woodke - all of whom have special needs in their own unique ways.

Woodke, for instance, suffered a stroke when he was 2 and lost the movement on the right side of his body. It has not stopped him, however, from running track and playing baseball and trying tennis for the first time at the camp.

"Now he wants to get into tennis," said Woodke's dad, Bob. "This sparked him."

Maybe one day, Bob said, Zach, 14, could end up as a volunteer at Tennis For Fun because Zach's need is more physical than mental.

"Zachary could show kids that you get out there and accomplish goals and have fun," Woodke said. "I think Paige's idea of giving back is a wonderful thing. It's inspiring."

Consider Berry, a little redheaded camper, who is now hoping to get a racket and get more into the game - all after just three days of Tennis For Fun.

Owen, who helped get prizes and merchandise donated (including a high-end racket from Babolat), said he will find a way to get a racket in Berry's hands.

But that will not stop Berry from her allegiance to Leavy. With a beaming grin, Berry playfully pointed at Leavy and said she was still her favorite teacher.

Why was she the best?

"She's my best friend!" Berry said. "That's why."

And she gave Leavy a big hug.

tpurks@tampatrib.com

(813) 731-5336

Twitter: @TBO_PrepSports

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