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Our Own Olympian

Featured Photo from Our Own Olympian

Back from the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi – with two silver medals to add to her overflowing trophy case – Sanford tennis star Brittany Tagliareni continues to inspire

At 29, Brittany Tagliareni is no stranger to intense competition. In fact, she thrives on it. A tennis phenom, she’s been winning championships in the United States and around the world since she started competing in 2008, and the trend continued this past March when Brittany journeyed with 7,000 other athletes to compete at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi.

It was the journey of a lifetime for a star athlete and one that spoke to her personal journey and relentless can-do spirit in the face of severe autism.

At 5’1” and 103 pounds, Brittany’s physical stature belies the powerhouse she is on the court. Speech delayed until age four, she required years of occupational, speech, and physical therapies and homeschooling by her mom, Catherine. By the time she was 16, Brittany became fascinated by her younger brother A.J.’s skills and competitiveness on the tennis court.

“He was calm and never nervous in competition,” says Brittany. “He was a wall. Yeah, I liked what I saw.”

Seeing Brittany’s eagerness to learn the sport, Catherine began slowly teaching her daughter.

“I knew Brittany wasn’t going to be able to watch a coach and do what the coach did,” says Catherine, who played tennis in high school. “She’d need more simplified directions, so I had to help her first so that she could get some kind of stroke before I could put her into classes. Like me, my children are  very competitive.”

And, so it began. Step by small step. Brittany, whose mom understood better than anyone her daughter’s physical and intellectual abilities, was able to break down the skills. Then it was practice, practice, practice. Today, Brittany is one of the top tennis players in the world, special or not.

“I can beat mom,” Brittany says with a laugh. “She’s not that good a player, but she’s a good coach. She motivates me to do well and she helps me practice.”

“Even to this day,” says Catherine, “if I see something in a competition that she might be struggling with – like moving toward the low short ball or the short high ball – I can separate out that skill set for her. I listen to what the coach tells Brittany to do, and then I break it down for her.”

Brittany says she loves the hard serve and the quick back-and-forth of tennis, which is why sometimes playing with another athlete below her skill level is more difficult. Classified as a high-performance Special Olympian, Brittany is currently one of the few women to play their singles matches against men. That was the case at the recent 2019 Special Olympics Florida State Games, where Brittany placed first while competing against all males.

“Men have big serves, and I know how to return them,” beams Brittany.

Asked if she was nervous when faced with the challenge of going to Abu Dhabi to participate in the World Games, Brittany confidently replies, “No, I never get nervous.”

“She was there without me,” says Catherine. “They had several days of fun visiting an international school and spending some time in Dubai before the tournaments. Brittany likes her independence and not being with mom all the time.”

But that independence came at a cost. Brittany, who is accustomed to a disciplined practice schedule of two hours of tennis in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, found herself off her game. Days of travel and fun and a very arid climate had taken their toll.

“My timing was off,” says Brittany. “I was a mess.”

When Catherine and her husband Tony arrived to watch their daughter in Abu Dhabi – along with Brittany’s personal coach and his wife – Brittany began to rebound. With a newly strung racket and fierce determination, she was ready to play. And play she did, taking home two silver medals in high-performance singles and mixed doubles.

Now back home, Brittany looks forward to continuing to play the sport she loves. Construction of a regulation tennis court is currently underway in the backyard of the family’s Sanford home. Brittany also works at a Nature’s Table restaurant owned by her parents, helping customers and learning cash register duties. When not working, she loves music, swimming, dancing, and volunteering at Dogs Unlimited.

On or off the court, Brittany has a lot to teach others about tenacity, compassion, and overcoming obstacles. She is, by any measure, a true champion.

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