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Obama endorses tennis, active lifestyles in anticipation of 2012 Summer Olympics

March 14, 2012 01:08 AM
The First Lady's "Let's Move!" campaign has empowered over 226,000 kids - including these D.C. youngsters - through tennis.
Michelle Obama (left) addresses the kids who participated in the Mini Olympics at American University's Bender Arena.
WNBA legend and four-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Leslie and 1996 U.S. men's tennis team member MaliVai Washington.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USTA.com

WASHINGTON D.C. – As over 100 kids received their medals for their fine play at the American University "Mini Olympics," they also received some big praise from the First Lady of the United States.
"This was very cool, wasn’t it? That looked like so much fun!" said an excited Michelle Obama to the youngsters at her feet on the gym floor. As Obama spoke, a dozen Olympic and Paralympic athletes stood in the background but all were highly instrumental in getting each child active and developing skills over the course of two hours in the university’s Bender Arena.
Imagine learning to hit a backhand from former Wimbledon finalist MaliVai Washington, how to run a faster relay from 1996 U.S. gold medal-winning decathlete Dan O’Brien, or the opportunity to take pointers from three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie, a four-time Olympian, on how to shoot a basketball. On this day, these local Washington D.C. kids were served some world-class instruction.
The Olympic-themed day of play was also attended by Obama’s friend Samantha Cameron, wife of Great Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. Both women arrived about halfway through the event and took time to watch the kids play or better yet – in the case of Obama – participate in the activity, as she did when she took five minutes to hit around with the kids on the 36-foot Sport Court. The Prime Minister and his wife are currently on a visit to the United States and the event was a functional reminder that London will host both the 2012 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in July and August, respectively. 
Obama asked the kids to make sure they thanked their hosts.
"We had all these wonderful athletes here today. Did you learn something from them?" she asked. "Focus, because these people have put in some time and made many sacrifices to get here. They should be role models to all of you."
Last year the USTA teamed up with Obama’s "Let’s Move!" campaign to encourage young people across the country to get active, try tennis and lead a healthy lifestyle. A mother of two, Obama continually takes to the court to inspire families, appearing at the 2011 US Open and various expos across the country where "Let’s Move!" lands. The partnership has reaped tremendous benefits in its infancy as youth tennis program participation soared in 2011. Over 226,000 kids nationwide completed the President’s Active Lifestyle Award (PALA) challenge that encourages young Americans to be active 60 minutes a day, five days a week, for six weeks in an eight-week period. 
Like the Olympics and Paralympics, being active takes a long-term commitment and provides more awards than just winning a tennis match.
"The true spirit of the Games isn’t confined to just the two weeks in the summer in London. It is not all about the medal count or which country brings home the most gold," added Obama. "Really, it is about finding that inner-strength that lies within all of us, pushing ourselves to be the very best at something we feel deeply about. All of these athletes have done it, digging down, wanting to do more."
The competition for the day consisted of the kids circulating at a rapid pace through six different stations that featured five different sports: Tennis, basketball, swimming, soccer and track. Clad in red, white and blue t-shirts, the children came to a enjoy tennis session with Washington, Paralympic gold medalist and defending US Open quad wheelchair champ David Wagner and volunteers from the USTA Mid-Atlantic section. The activities featured short matches and a skills competition for accuracy with the most overall points winning.
"I was definitely running around. I think I was the only one sweating (from the USTA crew)," joked Washington, who is accustomed to working with youth athletes year-round through his MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation in Jacksonville, Fla. "It was a good time. I think it accomplishes what the First Lady is continually trying to accomplish and that’s getting kids playing and keeping kids active and healthy."
Offering athletic and academic instruction to children who would otherwise go without, Washington considers himself a kindred spirit in advocacy with Obama.
"Today was the second time I’ve had the privilege of meeting her, and the conversations both have centered on tennis and helping kids," said Washington about their brief-yet-animated conversation as Obama made the rounds. "One, I think she really enjoys tennis, but with what I do and with what she does with her ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative, we share that common bond.
"I’m in my element when I’m out on the court and I believe she is as well."
Wagner, who currently ranks No. 2 in the ITF Wheelchair Tennis quad ranks, gave the kids a different look at what it takes to be a success as he wheeled about the baseline, volleying with the groups.
Wagner lost his ability to walk as a result of an accident in the surf off the coast of Redondo, Calif. in 1995. The result of the incident was a broken neck, damaging his spinal cord and causing paralysis from the chest downward. Prior to his accident Wagner was a decorated high school and collegiate tennis player and doctors had little hope that he would ever walk again. 
Going through grueling rehabilitation, Wagner gained strength and set goals through Wheelchair Tennis and started to train again. In less than a decade’s time, Wagner reached his first Paralympics in Athens, Greece at the 2004 games, medaling in both singles (silver) and doubles (gold). To this day Wagner competes full-time and travels all over the world and successfully encouraged the USTA and the US Open to include Grand Slam competition for quadriplegics, which they did in 2007.
"These kids are great, they inspire me," said Wagner. "Some of the ones in blue shirts had me moving. I’m glad they got to see what our game has to offer – that tennis is for everyone. Like the Paralympics, It was truly an honor to be here representing the country."
Washington, who himself played with the United States men’s tennis team in Atlanta in 1996, echoed a similar humility when reflecting on what the Olympics meant to him.
"So often in tennis you’re representing yourself," said Washington. "To be there in ’96, to be part of a few Davis Cup teams (1993, ’96 and ’97) for the U.S., those were among my fondest moments. I was disappointed to have only played at one Olympics, but I also realize I was very fortunate, too."
Later Leslie, representing USA Basketball, struck up a friendly conversation with Washington as the kids filed out of the arena. The former Los Angeles Sparks all-star had her iPhone out, excitedly showing Washington home footage of her four-year-old daughter, Lauren, firing winners with red, low-compression balls. Both Leslie and her husband, Michael, see tennis as a great outlet for their young kids in their suburban neighborhood of Marina del Rey, Calif.
"My husband is all about 10 and Under Tennis," said Leslie. "He’s done the research, knows the equipment, you name it. She (Lauren) loves to play and have fun. The doctor says she’s going to be tall and athletic, so we think tennis would be a great sport for her to develop with as she gets older and grows into her body." 


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