There is not one particular mold to fit in order to be an athlete. Size, strength, age, gender, race, religion, disability and sexual orientation all take a back seat to the one characteristic that all athletes possess: heart.
For some, they have a fear of success and will find any excuse they can in order to not reach their full potential. That isn’t the case for Kelly Quashnick. The Bret Harte High School senior was diagnosed with moderate autism at the age of 4, and doctors told his parents that they had better learn sign language, as there was a chance Kelly would never speak.
Any obstacle that was put in front of Kelly, he quickly smacked. And for the past four years, Kelly has been smacking away tennis balls and ended his Bret Harte tennis career as a Mother Lode League All-League player.
Kelly isn’t a victim of autism. Rather, he can be viewed as an inspiration for those who are afraid to take a chance.
“He does not want to be seen as different, in any shape or form,” Bret Harte’s severely handicap special day class teacher Molly Teale said. “Tennis has given him that avenue and that group of kids who are super supportive.”
The first serve
Finding a competitive nature in Kelly was never an issue. As an eighth grader, Kelly participated in a track and field meet and showed an interest in running. Over his four years at Bret Harte, he has always been a member of Jon Byrne’s physical education class. But when it was time to pick a sport in the spring of his freshman year, Kelly hurdled track and landed on the tennis courts.
“Lloyd Longeway, who is an adapted PE specialist, looked at the sports and he said, ‘What about tennis?’ So, we took him out and did some test stuff with him and he kind of liked it,” Teale said. “We asked him what he wanted to do and he picked tennis.”
While Kelly was ready for tennis, the idea still had to be floated by his parents. It would be natural for any parent of a child with special needs to be concerned about their kid taking part in athletic competition, but that was not the case for Kelly’s parents. His father, also named Kelly, knew that his son had already overcome so much in his life and that playing tennis could only bring positive results.
“There’s always going to be apprehension dealing with any kind of special needs child or a child with a disability,” Quashnick said. “It’s always in the back of our minds. We were just fully onboard with it as an opportunity because of all the progression he has made.”
As an official member of the Bret Harte tennis team, it was up to coach Judith Anderson to teach Kelly how to be a tennis player. Anderson learned early on that Kelly would do exactly what she said and wouldn’t deviate from the script. The ability to follow orders and have precise attention to detail helped Kelly progress on the courts.
“The reason his serve is as effective as it is, is because I will give him a task,” Anderson said. “I will say, ‘Kelly, I want you to go and serve five balls to the forehand and then I want you to serve five to the backhand. Then I want you to switch sides and do the same thing.’ I’ll leave and come back and ask how it went and he’ll say, ‘Coach, I did five to the forehand and five to the backhand.’ If you give him a specific task, he produces results.”
Kelly and Anderson have been together the past four years and they have become good friends.
“She’s cool,” Kelly said. “She’ll explain to me about what is going to happen in a match. She always tells me to get the ball back.”
The results that Kelly showed during the first few weeks of practice his freshman year came as a surprise. It didn’t take long for Kelly to make his way onto the traveling team.
“It’s a small group and it’s only big enough for the good kids,” Teale said about the traveling team. “Right off the bat, after two practices, Judith said, ‘He’s good enough to go on the travel team.’ So right there, that started to give Kelly confidence that he was good at the sport.”
Being a good winner and loser
In the early stages of Kelly’s tennis career, Teale showed him videos of how to act, and how not to act on the tennis court. They watched videos of legendary tennis player John McEnroe as an example of bad sportsmanship and that Kelly could participate in a kind way, while also being aggressive.
“Kelly likes to win and to be perfect every time, so we had to work on knowing that it’s OK not to win every time,” Teale said. “That was the beauty of it, because I needed Kelly to lose some of the time to become a good loser.”
Kelly knows that regardless of whether he wins or loses, he does the same thing at the end of each match.
“I shake hands and say good game,” Kelly said. “(If I lose) I’ll go back out the next time and try harder. I don’t let it ruin my day.”
Kelly’s father added, “He is very competitive, but he knows that as long as he tries hard and is OK with his performance, that’s the overall idea instead of holding on to the defeat of the day.”
In his freshman year, Kelly was a doubles player, but he modeled his game after two of his teammates. Twins Earnee and Adeen Gonzalez were two years older than Kelly, but he watched how they played and Teale encouraged him to continue to watch what the older, more experienced players did.
“We use peer modeling, which is an evidenced-based practice for kids with autism, and you will achieve better if you have a peer teach you how to do it,” Teale said.
After a year of playing doubles, Kelly stood on his side of the net all alone. Anderson felt that Kelly would find more success and be able to control things easier if he became a singles player.
“The reason we moved him into singles is because there are less things that happen on a singles court, as compared to doubles,” Anderson said. “It’s not that Kelly doesn’t have the shots in doubles, because he does. But in singles, he can control it better.”
Teale added, “The singles is a great component because many times, kids with autism like to do things by themselves, but it’s still a team sport. So, he gets to compete independently, but it’s still a team sport and it gives him good social opportunities, but it’s more on his terms.”
By his second year of tennis, Kelly started to feel as if he was getting the hang of it.
“Maybe by the second year, I started to think I was pretty good at it,” Kelly said. “I was excited that I was on my own.”
On his own, Kelly could focus on climbing the ladder in an attempt to be Bret Harte’s No. 1 player.
“Tennis is fun and I want to be No. 1,” Kelly said.
Teale added, “There is a greater confidence level. He knows what number he is on the ladder, so he’s tracking that. Now he’s No. 2. The higher he goes on that ladder, the more confident he becomes.”
Coaches always tell their players that sports aren’t just about winning and losing, but the life lessons that are learned along the way. In the case of Kelly, that could not be more true. Because of tennis, he has learned to become more independent and figure out a way to communicate better with his teachers, coaches and teammates.
Kelly can now get himself to and from practice on his own and because of his cherished wristwatch, always remains punctual. He can safely cross the street from the high school to the tennis courts and because he cannot drive, Kelly has to make sure he can get to where he needs to be. All of which are skills that will help him after he graduates from Bret Harte at the end of May.
“He’s a kid that wants to go to college and do normal, everyday stuff,” Teale said. “So, he has to be able to have some independence and tennis gave him a lot of independence. I think tennis has helped his independence for the future. It has proven that he has lots of skills inside. He’s had phenomenal growth.”
Kelly is one of the most popular students on Bret Harte’s campus, but now, he is also one of the most recognized players at any tennis match. Regardless of what school Bret Harte is facing, he is always greeted with friendly smiles.
“He’s outgoing and he knows everybody,” Anderson said. “He even knows kids from the other teams and they know him and will say, ‘Hi, Kelly,’ and there’ll be a little bit of an exchange. Not an in-depth one, but just some simple recognition.”
And when it comes to having friends, Kelly doesn’t have to look any further than his fellow Bret Harte teammates.
“I have lots of friends on the tennis team,” Kelly said.
An All-League player
Kelly finished his senior year with an overall record of 4-6, but lost four of his matches in super tiebreakers, so he easily could have been 8-2. When Kelly was placed on the all-league team, Anderson could not have been prouder.
“Yes, he is one of the best in the league and that validated my point of view,” Anderson said. “I can nominate him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of the coaches will see him the same way that I do. But they recognized that he has skill. He is one of the most consistent players on the team right now. This year was the year that he really shined.”
Kelly Quashnick can see the strides his son has made after four years of tennis. He knows that it can be scary to allow a special needs child to play a sport, but he encourages all parents to give it a shot.
“I would tell them that no matter the fears or the apprehension that we have as parents of special needs children, what those children want more than anything is the sense of normality that they see every day with their peers,” Quashnick said. “Just to get out there benefits them in so many ways. It also gives them the opportunity to be around other kids who may not have any opportunity to be around kids with special needs and it can help teach them about dealing with those individuals.”
Teale echoes Quashnick’s thoughts.
“I think the inclusion opportunity is amazing for kids in sports,” she said. “I think the social component is amazing. What they learn from their peers is something that I could never teach them in eight years of social groups. The natural opportunities in that natural environment are phenomenal for kids and you are going to see great things. When you expect great things from kids, you get great things from kids.”