By MADDY VITALE
Aneudy Valerio listened as his coach, Bill Edwards, gave him some pickleball pointers.
Edwards demonstrated with Valerio, 19, of Northfield, observing. Then moments later, Valerio smacked the ball with just enough force for it to skim the net toward his opponent, which set off a decent volley among the four players.
“I’m really good at hitting the ball,” Valerio said, noting that he liked the sound the ball makes when it hits the paddle.
“He’s a real ringer,” Edwards said, noting Valerio’s talent at pickleball. “He’s great, and it’s a wonderful sport for everyone to play.”
The duo was joined by a host of other pickleball players at Ocean City’s new Unified Pickleball event Saturday at the Sports and Civic Center at Sixth Street and Boardwalk.
Valerio was one of 16 athletes from Cape and Atlantic counties who have disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy who ranged from primary school age to young adults.
In Special Olympics, the term “Unified” designates sports in which athletes with disabilities team up with people from the community or local teams, according to a city news release.
While Saturday’s event was not an official Special Olympics event, it was geared toward teaching the athletes how to play pickleball for potential Special Olympics games in the future, officials said.
Pickleball will be included as an exhibition competition at this year’s Special Olympics State Summer Games.
The event may not be officially a recognized Special Olympics sport, but others are that Ocean City hosts each year.
In March, the resort will hold the annual Special Olympics competitions in swimming and in May there will be track and field events.
Mayor Jay Gillian noted that after attending Special Olympics competitions over the years, “it’s clear that these programs are incredibly rewarding to everybody involved – the athletes, their families, coaches, volunteers and spectators.”
“I’d love to see Ocean City become a second home for the Special Olympics in the coming years,” he emphasized.
While the city has seen such success from the Special Olympics events in town, the Unified Pickleball is new.
“We are very excited to try this new event for the first time, and I would love to make Ocean City a Special Olympics town,” Gillian said.
Gillian looked around at all of the players enjoying themselves and said how rewarding it was to witness.
The players volunteered their time to teach the kids and young adults how to play pickleball, while also having fun.
“We will do more of these unified events,” Gillian said. “This is what Ocean City is all about — community. Everyone is working together. The kids are so terrific. Their smiles are spectacular. It is so nice seeing everyone having a great time. It reminds you to have a good time.”
The event was organized by city employee, Jackie Adams, of the Community Services Department.
“I think one of the coolest things about the event is it brings our community and people with disabilities together as one,” Adams said. “It is nice to see everyone socializing.”
Volunteer coach Bill Edwards’ wife, Carrie Edwards, was busy playing alongside Michael Polcini, 11, in a lively game.
Michael has Down syndrome. He jumped, dove and hit the ball over the net a bunch of times while working with his volunteer coach, laughing and having fun.
Michael’s father, Ocean City Councilman Tony Polcini, said it was a great experience for his son and fun for him, as a parent, to watch.
“He’s good at it,” Polcini said.
Polcini also said he was pleased that Gillian and the city want to add more of the unified sports events to the calendar.
“I love the fact that our city is embracing Special Olympics. I want to hopefully, in my position, help bring more of these events to town,” he said.
City Councilman Tom Rotondi is on the board of directors for The Arc of Cape May County. He and his son, Tommy, watched the players.
Rotondi said that he would like The Arc to partner with the city on events such as the one Saturday.
“We would like to be a co-sponsor for these events,” he said.
Fred Feliciano and his wife, Jennifer Dean, of Mays Landing, watched their son Ryan, 16, hit the ball with steady concentration.
“I think the unified sports, in general, are good for the kids. It also gives them an opportunity to integrate with all the mainstream kids, and it doesn’t matter your disability,” Feliciano said. “There is something for all levels.”
Dean, a chemistry teacher at Ocean City High School, noted the level of volunteerism in Ocean City for special events always makes her smile.
“I love that the kids in the community volunteer,” Dean said. “And it’s always great to see the police and fire personnel out and about. Everyone is smiling.”