Will Gibson and Aidan Elliott are both players and volunteers in the Buddy Up Tennis program. These nine-year-old "veterans" serve as peer mentors to new athletes that are learning to play tennis.

By Jane Hines, special to USTAFoundation.com

Will Gibson and Aidan Elliott have recently returned from Youngstown, Ohio, helping the Buddy Up Tennis program open its eighth location.  They answered the call to serve, “Do you want to make new friends, show them how to play tennis and have fun?”  Although only nine-years-old, Aidan and Will are “veteran” athletes in the Buddy Up Tennis program and have evolved into the role of peer models. Both young athletes have Down syndrome.

Buddy Up Tennis is a weekly, high-energy program focused on adaptive tennis, fitness, and fun for children and adults with Down syndrome.  When opening a new location, it is important to provide adequate training for the coaches and volunteers.  Aidan and Will serve as seasoned athletes who played alongside the new athletes, offering encouragement and showing them how much fun tennis can be!

Program founder Beth Gibson always knew she wanted to share the sport of tennis with her family. When she learned her youngest son Will had Down syndrome, that philosophy did not change at all. "Will was fascinated by tennis," Gibson said. "My older son and I played, and it was just one of those things he took to."  Gibson started the Buddy Up Tennis program in 2008 in Columbus, Ohio. Because of her persistence and dedication, year-round programs have taken root in Columbus, Akron, Cincinnati, Dayton, Youngstown, Chicago, Pittsburgh and the Murfreesboro/Nashville area.  Will has opened six of those locations, along with his 16-year-old brother, Keegan, who is a buddy and a coach. Will Gibson inspired the mission statement of Buddy Up Tennis: Where there’s a Will, there’s a way!

Aidan Elliott has participated in the Columbus Buddy Up Tennis program for five years.  When he first started playing it was a challenge due to his developmental delays, which included speech, physical challenges, coordination and sensory issues. At the age of five Aidan did not speak intelligibly, could not jump, and struggled with fine motor skills. Aidan had received weekly speech, physical, and occupational therapy since the age of 3 months old, yet he was still significantly delayed compared to typical children his age.

“We did not know what to expect of the program or how Aidan would do in it but decided to give it a try. It did not take long to realize how amazing the program was and to see Aidan flourish,” says his father, Scotte Elliott. Unlike other adaptive sport programs that Aidan had participated in, Buddy Up Tennis utilizes a one-on-one approach where a “buddy” is assigned to each athlete.  “In my opinion, this is one of the keys to the program’s success.”

Watching Aidan and Will “give back” by “paying it forward” inspires coaches, volunteers and other players. They learn first-hand that individuals with Down syndrome are people first, that they are more alike than different, and that they are hard-working, friendly, and fun!


Learn more about the Buddy Up Tennis program.