Ryan O’Connor was a preemie.
He required lots of physical therapy due to hypertonia: a condition of too much muscle tone, making arms or legs stiff and hard to move.
The Land O’ Lakes High sophomore International Baccalaureate (IB) student also took up youth tennis, which, in turn, helped him develop his muscles “where they needed to be.”
Now, O’Connor has turned his childhood adversity, and training, into a passion project that has been endorsed both by his school and the United States Tennis Association (USTA).
O’Connor created Tennis Starts With Love, an after-school adaptive program for children 10 or younger, which provides equipment and drills to work on hand-eye coordination, balance, dexterity or foot coordination issues.
All of this comes at no cost to the parents.
“This has been a passion project of mine,” said O’Connor, who is the No. 2 seed on the Gators boys tennis team. “I always wanted to bring my training in tennis to a place where I could make a difference. I worked on this proposal for almost a year and through the generosity of the USTA and my school’s blessing, this program finally has come together.
“I think, over time, it will definitely become more organized, but it is getting better each and every time we come out and run around and work on drills.”
The program started in November and has had great success so far. O’Connor and other volunteers work with about a half-dozen players at the weekly, hourlong training session held Fridays at the courts on campus.
The kids run through warm-up and ball drills before putting in their hands the racquets provided by the USTA.
Parents watch from mini-bleachers as their kids overcome apprehensiveness and take to the physical activity and tennis instructions.
“He loves it,” said Rhona Fox, a Land O’ Lakes, whose 5-year-old son, Maxim Cohen, takes part in the program. “He’s home-schooled and starts kindergarten in August, so we’re using it as an opportunity to see what he likes — soccer, baseball, swimming, and now it’s tennis, which we love, too, because it’s ongoing. We’ll plan to be here as long as the coach keeps doing it.”
O’Connor noted: “We’re just trying to teach the coordination and dexterity of it all while incorporating a little bit of tennis. We go very slowly, step by step and then move forward with tennis. I really just want to focus on coordination and I know tennis will come to them.”
O’Connor said the program will run through the school year (end of May), and will accept more kids, but no more than eight to 10 because of his limited help. The program welcomes more volunteers.
The kids, however, are loving Tennis Starts With Love.
“It’s fun to be able to do this,” said player Merina Paulson, a 9-year-old from Lutz. “I like being out there and playing and then we can hit the ball. That’s been a lot of fun.”
“I’ve learned how to hit the ball and get it over the net,” her brother, J.D., 6, added. “And, when I did (hit) it, it went over the net and that was pretty cool.”
The parents see their kids’ desire for the program.
“(This is) pretty much the only thing he gets in the car for, (laughs),” Fox said. “Usually, we have to chase him around, but he is always ready to come to tennis.
“It’s incredibly fulfilling to see him play this sport and also be with other kids.”
In the end, nothing makes a passionate project more worthwhile than, well, the passion for it.
“They are very passionate about it,” O’Connor said. “Tennis is an expensive sport and there are not many programs that are taking on younger children who might benefit from the muscular movements involved with tennis.
“So, when parents say that when Friday comes and their kids are very excited to come here, that’s, obviously, something that makes us very excited.”
Tennis Starts With Love Adaptive Program
When: Fridays, 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Where: Land O’ Lakes High, 20325 Gator Lane
Details: A weekly, hourlong tennis program that benefits children, ages 10 or younger, by providing equipment and drills to work on hand-eye coordination, balance, dexterity or foot coordination issues. The program will run through the rest of the school year (end of May) and has a few openings available. Volunteers to help coach are welcome, too.
Info: Contact Ryan O’Connor at or 813-997-4613.
Published February 08, 2023
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