Theresa Capozzoli credits her sister for driving her passion to bringing pickleball to Special Olympic athletes.
Capozzoli, 67, who now lives in Florida, grew up in Pennsylvania with a special-needs sister she considered inspirational.
“Anne Marie was a Special Olympics athlete who did swimming and bowling,” Capozzoli said.
Capozzoli said her sister, who was born with Down Syndrome and died at the age of 53, loved all sports and considered her time watching and participating in Special Olympics games as among the best in her life.
“Sports provided her with opportunities to develop not only physically, but socially; and most importantly, they encouraged her to have fun,”Capozzoli said. “Man, was she good at so many things, and such an inspiration. If I ever felt discouraged with my own performance in a sport, it was Anne Marie saying to me, ‘You can do it.’"
These days, sports for Capozzoli means pickleball.
“I’m a pickleball addict,” Capozzoli says.
In the space of a few years, she went from a hapless player who could barely hit the ball to a USA Pickleball Ambassador in Manatee County, Florida, and a Special Olympics Florida certified coach.
It was her sister’s influence that led Capozzoli to want to donate her time and energy to making pickleball available for special athletes.
Two years ago, she wrote a letter that asked for people in the area to join her and mentoring Special Olympic adults to play pickleball, a sport that was just beginning to be recognized for those games.
“It’s no wonder that it is one of the most contagious sports in the US, with over 3 million participants (and growing)!” she wrote. “Its adaptability makes pickleball the perfect sport for the intellectually disabled, with benefits that include improved hand-eye coordination, motor skill development, cardiovascular activity, and social interaction.
“So, who’s ready to join me in organizing this group?”
Over the years, the group has grown. She now helps teach pickleball to about two dozen special adults.
“We have some very low-performance athletes who are intellectually disabled individuals. Some lack the ability to do anything. There’s a little sadness.
But the goal is to have them all succeed. And we work with everybody. And on a happier note, we all have a great time.”
Later this month, Capozzoli will be accompanying a small team of adult pickleball players in her area to state-level games being held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Disney World.
It’s still relatively new, and the rules are constantly being tweaked, she said.
Players are grouped by their abilities, and in some cases, that may involve skill drills rather than playing games and a slower moving ball. The highest-performing players are often paired with volunteers to form what is known as a “unified” entry.
Creating “unified” teams of players of different mental capabilities is seen as a beneficial experience for both participants.
Special Olympics categorizes players in four levels with Level 4 being the high-performance level. The rules of the game have small modifications, but are mostly the same. For example, coaching during the game is allowed, and lower-level players get a second attempt to get the serve in.
“I can’t contain my enthusiasm for our players,” Capozzoli said. “Like many other people, I am so proud of them.”