Against All Odds: Going for Gold in the Special Olympics

JonathanFriedBY JOHN HOBBS

Jonathan Fried makes tennis look effortless.

The ease with which the World Games participant smashes the ball overhead during a serve.

His cross-court hustle to return volleys. The restrained backhand that sends the ball just out of reach for his opponent.

These are the marks of a tennis player near the top of his game. It’s also evidence of what Jonathan’s physical therapist and tennis coach refer to as “his genius,” because the 53-year-old competitor is able to accomplish all this despite profound intellectual and physical disabilities that might sideline lesser men.

“Jonathan is often times much more disabled than the people he’s playing against,” says his Virginia-based physical therapist David Luedeka, who’s been working with the athlete for the past two years and serves as director for the Fried Center for the Advancement of Potential.

Jonathan has an IQ of about 70, Luedeka explains. He functions at the level of a first or second-grader. He also suffers from major neurological and orthopedic problems, including a chronic foot issue. Perhaps most impressively, though — particularly in a sport that’s all about hand-eye coordination — is Jonathan’s monocular vision.

Whereas most sighted people’s brains will merge the two distinct images from each eye, Jonathan’s brain does not. He constantly sees two images at once — one through the right eye and one through the left — giving him limited depth perception and making tennis all the more challenging.

“To watch Jon play tennis is really to realize his genius,” Luedeka says. “Tennis is his gift, and he demonstrates that to us every time he plays because he does things he really shouldn’t be able to do.”

Inspiring confidence in the athletes
Jonathan is one of nearly 7,000 athletes, who have arrived from 177 countries to compete in the Special Olympics World Games, taking place this week on both the USC and UCLA campuses.

Jonathan has competed in three World Games, the first one in 1995 in New Haven, Conn.
“I was so nervous at first,” explains Barbara Fried, Jonathan’s mother, about his competing in the World Games. “We had to keep telling him ‘Play like a tiger! You can be friends later,’” she says, describing her son as the consummate gentleman.

Jonathan eventually found his inner tiger and began winning match after match.

In the 2007 World Games in Shanghai, China, Jonathan scored a gold medal. Four years later in Athens, Greece, Jonathan scored a silver medal in singles and a bronze in mixed doubles.

“The Special Olympics is a marvelous place for getting people to not just have fun or be with people but to become aware that they can do things,” Barbara says.

Against all odds
It’s this positive perspective that Barbara, who recently gifted nearly $500,000 to the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy for rotator cuff research, says the medical world was lacking when she first discovered Jonathan was a child with intellectual disabilities in the early 1960s.

“I was told to put him in an institution and not to have any more children,” says Barbara, who was already pregnant with her second child and had no plans to institutionalize her son.

Barbara and her husband Mark, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 78, are longtime benefactors, having given money and time to such issues as making education, housing and dentistry more accessible and affordable as well as issues affecting individuals with developmental disabilities.

Barbara says she first noticed Jonathan was developing differently when he was not walking or talking at the typical age. He also had strabismus, a so-called “lazy eye,” that had to be surgically corrected.

Though the medical paradigm at the time considered intellectual disability a disease to be managed, Barbara didn’t see it that way.

“Barbara would never really take no for an answer,” Luedeka says, explaining that she refused to accept doctors’ dire prognosis, working with Jonathan every day for years until he was finally able to walk at the age of 2.5.

“Doctors would tell you what is wrong, saying your child can do this or that,” she says. “I think the more forward way of looking at it, though, is to say your child is capable with help of doing this and that.”

Fried explains that she set out to do all she could to instill confidence in her son.

“He wasn’t isolated at all,” she says. “He played on the street with the other kids, and we sort of put everything in the house, including a trampoline in the backyard, so that kids would come to our house and he could be part of that.”

At 20, Jonathan moved to Innisfree Village, a voluntary life-sharing community for adults with intellectual disabilities, which was founded in part by Barbara and her husband.

“That’s when I started to feel like Jonathan would be OK,” she says, explaining that one of the worst fears of parents of children with intellectual disability is how will they survive once their parents die.

Changing the paradigm
For the past five years, Jonathan has been training with Jon Sarosiek, director of tennis at Wintergreen Resort, to get into fighting shape and perfect his backhand in preparation for the 2015 World Games.

A typical week includes nearly 8 hours of cardiovascular activity, strength training four times a week, orthopedic physical training six times a week and three days a week of tennis.

“I’ve never been around an athlete more determined and willing to do whatever it takes,” Sarosiek says.

“I think it’s important that everyone recognizes the hard work these athletes put in,” he adds.

Leudeka says he thinks the World Games provide an opportunity for society to challenge its notions about athletes with intellectual disabilities.

“It’s not just about acceptance and inclusion anymore,” he says. “It’s about realizing their human potential and pushing them to be who they truly could be and then they’ll be able to contribute to society at levels we never even thought imaginable.”