Rachel Sweatt from Arkansas Receives Player of the Year Award

January 30, 2024
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Rachel Sweatt and her strawberry bear after winning the USTA Southern Adult Female Player of the Year award. She is flanked by USTA Arkansas Executive Director Deanna Garretson (left) and USTA Arkansas President Mike Terrell (right). Photo courtesy of USTA Arkansas.

At their best, sports can transcend winning and losing. They can often teach us lessons far more important than anything involving a silly ball. It’s not always about the scoreboard. Many times, it’s about our hearts and minds, and sports can be a gateway to a larger worldview.

Let me tell you a bit about Rachel Sweatt a 26-year-old tennis player from Arkansas who was awarded the Slew Hester Female Player of the Year award for USTA Southern tennis January 20 in Atlanta. Rachel became the No. 1 woman in Special Olympics tennis in June 2021 and has since qualified for numerous NTRP National Championships, winning the 2023 championship. She is a top 5 ranked woman in the nation at the 4.5 level and was invited to play in an exhibition in New York at Arthur Ashe Stadium during the 2023 U.S. Open. In other words, she’s really good. Here’s what I haven’t told you- Rachel is autistic and was adopted at the age of 8 by an Arkansas family, the Sweatts from Hot Springs. She was nonverbal at the time. She started playing around the tennis court at 9, and her rise has been phenomenal.

At the USTA Southern Awards ceremony, Rachel was accompanied to the stage by her mother. She strode across the stage at the appropriate time, clutching her stuffed strawberry bear, and accepted her award. Opening an iPhone, Rachel looked at the assembled crowd. If you know anything about autism, then you know that most people on the autism spectrum are creatures of routine and habit. Simple things outside their routine can throw everything out of order. Rachel is no different. But she gazed at the crowd and smiled before speaking in the sweetest voice. A voice her parents probably never thought they would hear when they first met her eighteen years earlier.

“Thank you so much to everyone,” she read from her phone. “I love to play tennis because it makes me strong and healthy.”

Believe me when I tell you, the group cry had already started.

Rachel continued, “Thank you to my Daddy for teaching me tennis when I was 8 and 9 years old. Thank you to my family and friends and my strawberry bear for being on my team. Thank you.”

Dear God, I couldn’t see the stage because of the tears in my eyes. She shuffled off with her award, stopping only to bow again once she realized she was receiving the only standing ovation of the afternoon.

Rachel’s spirit is what took my breath away. Her joy. The little embarrassed bow to the crowd coupled with the big grin. Maybe it was the moment, but Rachel Sweatt had the shiniest smile these eyes have ever seen. If there had been no light in the room, but we still had her smile, we would have been blinded. She radiated everything right about the human spirit, and I swear I was witnessing a living, breathing embodiment of our better angels. The more she smiled and waved, the longer the crowd gave her a standing ovation— and, oh yeah, the more tears I shed. It was one of the most real moments I’ve ever personally experienced. I’ve never seen a room embrace a person like it did Rachel. Everything was so alive and so pure that I never wanted it to end.

Life is sometimes about courage and determination, and Rachel personifies both traits. Anything is possible.

Love might mean nothing in our chosen sport, but to all who encounter Rachel, it is absolutely everything. [Note: This was written by John C. Cox. Used with permission of the author.]

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