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NTRP Spotlight: Rachel Sweatt

September 20, 2019 02:46 PM

By Craig Ellenport/USTA

In 2018, the USTA launched the NTRP National Championships, a national adult tournament that leverages the NTRP rating system as a way to create level-based competition. After a second successful event earlier this year, USTA.com is highlighting the players who made the event so special. Learn how to qualify for the NTRP National Championships in your section here.

This month, we caught up with USTA Southern member Rachel Sweatt, who finished third this year at the 4.0 level in Naples, Fla.

When Rachel Sweatt received a golden ticket, inviting her to the NTRP National Championships in Naples, Fla., last March, it created a flood of emotions for the Sweatt family. They were thrilled for Rachel, naturally. It was a well-deserved honor for the 21-year-old from Hot Springs, Ark., who had been winning tournaments throughout her home state. But how would she handle a trip out of state?

Rachel Sweatt has autism. John and Deby Sweatt adopted Rachel in 2007 when she was 8 years old. John taught her to play tennis at that time, and it became a strong release for Rachel, who was completely non-verbal. Being in a set routine is a common trait for people with autism, and tennis became a regular part of Rachel’s routine.

Another common trait of those with autism is that breaking from routine or getting out of one’s comfort zone can be very tough. Getting on a plane and traveling to Naples was definitely out of Rachel’s comfort zone.

“We came a week early,” said Deby Sweatt. “We got an Airbnb, so that we’d have a house and she’d have her own room. We took as much stuff as the plane would let us carry. All of her stuffed animals, every blankie, pillow. Everything to help her feel comfortable.”

After the Sweatts unpacked, they drove to the tennis courts at the Academia Sanchez-Casal facility, which has 38 courts.

“They were beautiful, bigger than anything we’ve ever seen,” said Deby. “And we just let her walk around and giggle and bounce balls. And that was about it for the first day. On the second day, they let us come in and just pick a court over in a corner where no one was and play. She and her dad. And we would do that, then go rest, then go do it again. Just to familiarize her with the surroundings. Thought that was the best thing we could do. Just let her keep playing on the courts.”

Soon enough, Rachel felt at home. And the results showed: She finished third in the 4.0 competition.

“Absolutely handled it like a champ,” her mother said proudly. “She loved every minute of it. She just never stops. She never gives up. That’s her motto: ‘I never give up.’”

The NTRP Nationals opened doors for Rachel in many ways. While in Naples, USTA officials asked the Sweatts if Rachel competed in Special Olympics. The thought had never occurred to them. Since then, Rachel has been registered to compete in upcoming Special Olympics events in Georgia and South Carolina.

When we caught up with the Sweatts in early September, they were driving six-and-a-half hours to a tournament in Nashville, Tenn. – Rachel’s second out-of-state tournament, and good practice for the Special Olympics events coming up.

Deby said they do plenty of meditation, yoga and breathing exercises as stress management. It’s not always easy, but Rachel focuses on “controlling her brain.”

“Everything is a routine, everything is a rule,” said Deby. “We just take the time to let her get comfortable.”

Rachel is most comfortable on the tennis court. She continues to win, and that has earned her another trip to the NTRP Nationals next April. That tournament will take place in Surprise, Ariz. Rachel’s mother said she will be there.