Downers Grove mentor officiates Special Olympics World Games in sister’s memory

By Daniel Smrokowski | For The Bugle

John Coleman has been working as the district chairman of officials for the U.S. Tennis Association’s Chicago district for the past 15 years and officiating for the past seven years.

But the greatest privilege for the 62-year-old Downers Grove resident is being able to take part in the World Games for Special Olympics. Last week, he did just that.

“I want to bring to them the experience of a fully certified professional tennis umpire to make sure these players feel like they’re being treated as they are on the pro tour,” said Coleman.  “I enjoy Special Olympics the most because I feel as though we’re bringing quality tennis to the Special Olympic athlete.”

However, Special Olympics is most important to Coleman because of his late sister, Andrea.

“She was my strongest supporter when I was playing tennis,” Coleman said.

Andrea, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, passed away 19 years ago, but Coleman said he carries on her spirit in his work with Special Olympics.

“She was never in Special Olympics; she was never an athlete herself,” he said. “I do this basically in memory of Andrea. And, I just have such joy watching the joy of players playing tennis.”

Making the right call

Prior to this year’s competition, Coleman began officiating for Special Olympics at the local level, specifically northern Illinois-area tennis competitions. He then qualified to become an official at three national games: the 2006 Special Olympics USA Games in Ames, Iowa; the 2010 Special Olympics USA Games in Lincoln, Nebraska; and the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey. Even though Coleman was not selected to go to the World Games in Greece, he was selected to be a tennis official at the World Games in Shanghai, China.

The process to become an official at the World Games for Special Olympics is a challenging one. First, officials have to become eligible by being certified by the USTA, followed by both written and physical examinations.

Next, they must learn the rules of Special Olympics, which pose additional challenges because each competitor has a different disability and different competition divisions exist for the athletes. Coleman was issued a Special Olympics World Games Tennis Manual that explained all the guidelines that he’d need to know. Finally, officials learn about the various divisions within the sport of tennis for Special Olympics.

While working as an official at the prior World Games in China, Coleman had an experience that is still vivid today.

A Special Olympics athlete from the Dominican Republic, who was competing in her first game and set, collapsed and had a seizure. The physician, her coach and her trainer came to provide assistance to the athlete.

Despite this, she came back to compete and eventually medaled at the World Games. Coleman said the experience was inspiring and taught him to be prepared for any situation during the course of the competitions. 

Unity and Comradery

Another inspiring moment for a tennis official is the opportunity to mentor athletes. Coleman began mentoring Illinois athlete John Fajdich at the World Games in China.

Fast forward to today, and Coleman is mentoring gold medalist athlete Jonathan Doring. The Florida native won a gold medal while competing at the World Games in Greece.

Despite being diagnosed with Fragile X Syndrome, a form of autism, Doring has graduated from college with a two-year degree and currently works for a local supermarket group in Florida.  He is a professional speaker for the supermarket, and this year will serve as a tennis official himself.

“He excels in his disability by being able to overcome it, not only physically but also intellectually,” said Coleman.

From competing on the same playing field to the unified theme song “Reach Up,” There will be many unified experiences at this year’s World Games in Los Angeles.

To play unified means that a person with an intellectual disability and a person without a disability play on the same team together. And just as competitors and coaches come together, officials, too, were unified during the competitions.

Throughout the World Games, the athletes, coaches and officials all exchanged pins from across the globe. With phrases such as “I really appreciate you officiating,” these pins are a “badge of honor” for Coleman.   

For the first time ever, ESPN provided coverage of the three-hour opening ceremony July 25 and comprehensive daily coverage throughout the week.

“I think that it’ll be one of the biggest things that ESPN will do all year,” Coleman said before departing for the games. He added that Doring would have his own blog on the ESPN website.

“Most importantly, we’re doing this for Special Olympics athletes and sharing the joy,” Coleman said.

Coleman has received nothing but positive feedback for everything that he has done while being involved in Special Olympics. But for him, reconnecting with Doring, meeting new athletes and “celebrating with them when they win” are the things Coleman look forward to the most.

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