How has Coach [Brian] Tenety influenced your life?
Justin: I met Coach [Brian] Tenety through our Unified basketball team and we've been friends ever since. I've learned a great deal from him about basketball and life. I've learned how to keep pushing on. He taught me that I’m going to have tough times, but I’m also going to have joy. He instilled in me to always have a good attitude, keep your eyes on the prize, and you will reach your personal best. I want to pass on the lessons he has taught me and leave them as a legacy.
Caraline: Coach [Brian] Tenety is always about trying your best and having a positive attitude. His support for his athletes and for Special Olympics Unified Sports® is unmatched. There are so many people who have never experienced the joy that Unified Sports brings. It shows you how everybody is capable of playing sports. It’s about equal opportunity of play, having fun, and coming together with people of all abilities.
When did you begin your journey as teammates?
Justin: Caraline and I met through Unified basketball. We've won some games, we've lost some games. But it's not about winning or losing. It's all about making new friends.
Caraline: Even this past year (2019) when I played on our high school’s Unified basketball team, Justin still came out to support me even though he graduated the year before. It was so great to see him in the stands cheering for me.
After Unified basketball, you took up Unified tennis together outside of school. What inspired this change?
Caraline: I was on the varsity tennis team at my high school when I was a sophomore. I play for fun and now I've started playing with Justin, which is helping me perfect my skills, too. I reached out to Justin and asked, “Why don't we go play some tennis together?”
Justin: I played tennis in school a few times but I didn't necessarily get the hang of it. I have a tennis court down the street from my house. I would go with Caraline down the street to play tennis together. After a few weeks I got the hang of it. I learned backhand, I learned how to volley, and [kept going from there].
Caraline: Justin is a natural at it. We started with just hitting the ball and now he can serve and volley and rally. I remember our first rally of 6 and it was amazing. Every time we practice we add on a new skill. Justin’s serves are incredible. He's naturally good at serving and the ball always goes exactly where he's supposed to hit it. The first time we did volleys I did a quick little demonstration, and then right away he went 7 for 8 on the court. We've also learned forward hand and he's up to 9 for 10 on the court. When you look at the numbers, you can see how quickly he’s picking this up—he's naturally talented.
Caraline, you recently began the training and certification to become a Special Olympics New York coach. Now, you have transitioned from your role as Justin’s teammate to working with Justin as a tennis coach. What motivated you to become a Special Olympics coach?
Caraline: Coach [Brian] Tenety has helped me get involved in the Unified Sports community in so many ways. I didn't even know I could become a certified coach until he told me about it. I wanted to be a coach so that I could continue working with these amazing people [with intellectual disabilities]. You see how they play for the love of the game and that makes me so happy. When I'm with Justin, it is all smiles. Win, lose, no matter what. It’s my passion.
Justin, what makes Caraline a great coach?
Justin: Caraline is not only a good teammate and coach; she is a good friend. When I get things wrong she is understanding and supportive. She tells me to keep going which a lot of special needs people like me may need. When I go through tough times, I have Caraline there too to pick me back up with gentle kindness.
Caraline, what has been your proudest moment as a coach?
Caraline: One moment that stands out is when we first went to go play tennis. We did some simple drills. Bouncing the ball, hitting it, just trying to get used to making contact with the ball. And within the next two times we played, we were hitting back and forth. Now we can rally together. It's a huge improvement from where we started. If Justin doesn't pick up a skill right away he keeps working, he keeps trying. The other day we were working on a skill and I was going to move on and he said, “No, let's do more serves. I need to keep practicing.” He never stops trying. He powers through even when he's tired. He has a huge work ethic.
Is there anything you wish the general public understood about your common bond as friends and Unified Sports teammates?
Justin: What makes our friendship so special is our kindness for each other. Whenever I have a bad day, she just gives me a smile, gives me advice, and helps me get through the day. I couldn't ask for anything more.
Caraline: It's so much more than tennis when we're out there on the court. It's a connection that goes beyond just being teammates. We support each another in anything we do—even beyond sports. It's hard to put into words what our friendship is like. It is so unique and so genuine. We're very lucky to have each other.