Back when Ivan Lendl was one of the top-ranked tennis players in the world he came into contact with Jonathan Slifka, the brother of West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka. Jonathan was born with spina bifida and has had to use a wheelchair throughout his life. The meeting took place in 1987 when Lendl was a spokesman for the March of Dimes and when he found out Jonathan was a devoted tennis player and fan he suggested attending a special tennis camp in San Diego organized by the National Foundation for Wheelchair Tennis. The experience was so profound that his mother, Janeace Slifka, launched a similar camp in Connecticut in 1991.
For most of his life Jonathan refused to let his disability be an excuse and he routinely went out for regular sports teams, at first surprising his parents and his coaches. Soon, though, most people in West Hartford would no longer be shocked when Jonathan would put his skills to the test against able-bodied athletes. When he was a freshman in high school (1992) he tried out for the William Hall High School tennis team, a program that had not lost match since 1987. Though he did not make the team the coach, Jim Solomon was so impressed with his courage and talent that he asked Jonathan to come out and warm up the players before home matches. Jonathan agreed and though he was upset at not making the team he realized there was plenty of opportunity out there for him, and other kids in wheelchairs.
Today the camp Janeace founded is in its 23rd year and is called the Hospital for Special Care’s Ivan Lendl Adaptive Sports Camp. A week long program, the camp features a special visit from Lendl himself, who lives in Greenwich. At first the camp was exclusively for tennis but over the years has turned into a multi-sport clinic that provides kids in wheelchairs much more than just athletic training. Mike Yousefi, the head coach for the program, told the Hartford Courant, “When you’re a kid, you struggle to find your way anyway. Add a disability on top of that. We give them a chance to succeed and set them up to succeed, and their self-esteem goes through the roof”.
Many of the kids who attend the summer camp are often the only people in their schools or communities using a wheelchair and the chance to be around kids with similar disabilities and challenges makes the camp more comfortable and welcoming.
Jonathan, now 36 and a counselor at the camp told the Courant, “I always say this is my favorite week of summer. To impact and possibly change a kid’s life, what better thrill can you have”?
HDS MEDALLION® agrees wholeheartedly!