- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Brenda Gilmore sits in her wheelchair and surveys a list of who will play whom on four tennis courts at Fairland Athletic Complex in Laurel, Md. All around her, children ranging in age from 6 to 18 chatter and chomp on pizza. One of the older players sneaks up behind Gilmore's chair and whispers in her ear. "Get away from me, Ahmad," she barks. "I'm tired of your always bugging me."
Gilmore smiles as she says this. Students within earshot laugh. Another enjoyable Sunday is under way for her Prince George's Tennis and Education Foundation. Many more are sure to follow.
Brenda Gilmore is the kind of feel-good story Hollywood loves. Paralyzed from spinal injuries suffered in a 1979 auto accident on Suitland Parkway, she has used tennis to help restructure her life and improve the lives of many young people who were not born white or rich. All but a handful of her current 60 pupils are black, but that is not important. Nor should it be.
Oddly, Gilmore, a native New Yorker who headed south to attend Howard University, never played tennis before her accident. After it, she read about classes for disabled persons in a newsletter for victims of spinal injuries and checked them out. Eventually, she became proficient enough at wheelchair tennis to rank among the top 10 nationally. Now the administration and coaching of tennis takes up much of her life.
"I wouldn't say that tennis exactly saved my life," she says. "I recovered very well emotionally from the accident because of my spirituality. But what tennis did was help me gain confidence mentally and physically. Some people were looking down on me, not only physically but as if I had been mentally disabled. Tennis let me prove I could do things as well as they could I've beaten several able-bodied opponents and also helped people be more supportive toward me."
In middle age, Gilmore no longer competes. ("I'm a retired champion I like the sound of that," she says.) Now all her attention is focused on her students, and not merely on the tennis court.
"The foundation helps kids want to do better in school as well as in tennis," she says. "You have to have at least a 'C' average to play for us I see the report cards or we'll get you a tutor. What we really want is for all our children to be honor students [many are]. And because tennis is an individual sport, you have to be responsible for yourself, take care of your shoes and racket, get to practices and matches on time."
Brandon Jackson, a 19-year-old freshman at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., spent three years in Gilmore's program. When spring break arrived, he rushed back to help and, like Ahmad, to hassle her just a bit.
"Playing for Miss Gilmore is like being in a home environment these are her kids, her family," Jackson says. "Her whole being is to help people, and she does more than most people [who walk] on two legs. She helped me develop the kind of confidence I can apply in the real world. I respect her so much."
Gilmore is no slouch as a coach either. Her advanced team won its second consecutive Baltimore Junior Tennis League championship a couple of weeks ago. Last year two of her players, Cynthia Craig and Kathy Kinzer, were given college tennis scholarships, and others are likely to follow suit in 2001. Simon Mbock, a High Point High School player with a 120 mph serve, hopes to compete for Cameroon in the 2004 Olympics.
The foundation, which receives funding from the Prince George's County Council thanks largely to the backing of Councilman Marvin Wilson and the U.S. Tennis Association, has just begun an afternoon program for 125 students at Phyllis E. Williams Elementary in Largo. Soon Gilmore hopes to have similar activities going at 10 schools around the county.
For a program that started in 1993 with "a couple of clinics in Glen Arden," the foundation has been remarkably successful. But what else would you expect from something run by a woman as determined as Brenda Gilmore?


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