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She courts independence with fervor

At 20, Heidi Sturtevant of Westchase swims competitively, has an orange belt in tae kwon do and works at a Tampa International Airport concession stand.

Her parents raised her to be independent.

The fact that she is mentally retarded has not slowed her down.

So when her mother, Gail Sturtevant, met a tennis coach at her community's swim and tennis center, her natural inclination was to sign Heidi up for lessons.

Today, several months and many practice hours later, Heidi Sturtevant holds a blue ribbon and a gold medal in tennis from the Special Olympics.

"If you want things for your child, you have to get involved," Mrs. Sturtevant said.

But Mrs. Sturtevant also is grateful to the coach, Bill Thomas.

"I don't think she would have won her first blue ribbon without Bill's help and assistance," she said. "He makes her work just as hard as the other kids."

The Sturtevant family moved to the Tampa Bay area two years ago from a small town in New Jersey.

Heidi is considered "high functioning but low mental," Mrs. Sturtevant said. That means she looks like other young adults but has low mental abilities.

Her parents are preparing her for the day when she can live in relative independence at an assisted living facility.

They saw the tennis competition not just as a sporting event but as a way to bolster her self-confidence.

Thomas said he was impressed with the effort Heidi put into her two lessons each week. "I wish I could take her heart and put it in some of the other kids to make them work as hard," he said.

The Special Olympics strives to give those with developmental disabilities an opportunity to reach athletic and social goals they might otherwise not attain. Instead of one-on-one competition, points are given for proficiency, said Tracy Vaughn, the coordinator for Hillsborough.

Heidi Sturtevant joined more than 600 athletes from Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties when she took part in the area Special Olympics in March. She won her gold medal May 21 at the state competition at Florida State University.

Now that the competition is over, she has cut back to one lesson a week.

But her enthusiasm hasn't waned.

"She works hard and doesn't give up," Thomas said. "She wants to do more."

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