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Hernando teen plays tennis in a wheelchair

BROOKSVILLE

When talking to Brittany Bennett, it would be tough to believe that the 16-year-old former track star and cheerleading captain suffered tragic paralysis.

Less than a year ago in July 2007, Bennett woke up one morning and was going through sudden spells of unconsciousness throughout the day. The following morning, she slipped into another spell and awoke paralyzed from the neck down.

Since then, doctors have not been able to provide answers to why this happened or to why she is still paralyzed from the thighs down. Those same doctors also had said the paralysis would be temporary and be gone after six months.

"It's been so hard," Michelle Bennett, Brittany's single mother of four, said, "but they've all been so supportive of Brittany, and they've never complained once."

Eleven months later, Brittany, 16, has coped better than anyone expected. After a short bout with depression, she stumbled across a solution to her problems, both physical and psychological. That solution: tennis.

While watching her sister, Chelsea, 13, in a class with instructors Louise and John Downey, Brittany picked up a racquet for the first time. Once she hit a ball over the net, something inside of her just clicked.

"I had been thinking for months that my world had stopped, and that I couldn't do anything anymore," Brittany said. "I couldn't believe I could (hit the ball like that), and once I did, I felt like I can do anything I want to do."

Brittany now plays tennis regularly, balancing it with her schoolwork, physical therapy sessions and frequent doctor visits. Her excitement for the sport has spurred new goals, like wanting to play in the 2012 Paralympics Games, and pushed her to want her old goals even more, like becoming a pediatrician when she gets older.

During a No Limit Sports event sponsored by Shriners Hospital in Tampa a of couple months ago, Brittany was able to meet Karen Korb, a member of the U.S. Paralympics Tennis Team. After taking a seat in Korb's specially-modeled tennis wheelchair, Bennett was even more motivated.

"She's learned the game in such a rapid fashion," John Downey said. "Knowing Brittany, once she sets her mind to something, nothing's going to stop her."

Brittany was just approved for a grant for a custom, tennis wheelchair from the Make A Difference Foundation in Clearwater, which strives to get sports equipment to disabled kids.

The chair should be in just in time for her next competitive tournament, a USTA Junior Team Tennis Tournament in Lakeland in July. The Downeys have pushed her to become more and more involved in the league, made up of mostly able-bodied competitors.

For Brittany, the opponent across the net is an obstacle to be surmounted. Whenever she has something to overcome, she always just tells herself her newest motto.

"Tough times never last, but tough people do," Brittany said.

Submit story ideas, feedback to communitysports@tampabay.com.

>>FAST FACTS

Brittany Bennett

Age: 16

Grade: Sophomore

Breaking through: Bennett became paralyzed in July 2007 and the cause is still unknown. After never before picking up a racquet, she took up tennis in October 2007 and is the only wheelchair tennis player in Hernando County.

In her future: Bennett plans on competing in her second competitive tournament next month in Lakeland. She hopes to be a pediatrician when she gets older as well as to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games.

For more on Brittany, see video at hernando.tampabay.com.

Hernando teen plays tennis in a wheelchair 05/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 11, 2008 9:51am]
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