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Lessons served on court
September 24, 2010, 04:33 AM

Brian and Marisa Wachhorst were heartbroken when they learned their 10-year-old son, Riley, was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome -- an autism spectrum disorder -- five years ago.

It was only natural. After all, the one thing parents want most is for their kids to grow up with a "normal" childhood.

"It's emotionally challenging for parents because you feel for them," Brian said.

But here's where the story turns for the better. Riley, along with her 8-year-old sister, Madeleine -- who has not been clinically diagnosed with Asperger's but shows all the same symptoms as her brother, Brian said -- have found their niche, and it happens to be on the tennis court. Riley and Madeleine have been playing the sport for a couple of years, but it was only this summer when they first started playing U.S.T.A. tournaments.

The two excelled immediately in their respective age divisions. Riley has played in seven tournaments this summer, making the finals of the Split Step 10-and-under Challenger tournament in South San Francisco on Aug. 7. Madeleine has played in four tournaments, winning the De Anza College 8-and-under singles Challenger four weeks ago.

The two -- Riley is a fifth grader and Madeleine a third grader at Washington Elementary School in Burlingame -- have showed tremendous consistency, making the quarterfinals of every tournament they've entered. More importantly, tennis has given the siblings a sense of identity, purpose and confidence.

"Excelling in tennis makes them feel more accepted and part of the inner circle," Brian said. "They've really gotten connected to friends through tennis, and they think of themselves as athletes now."

With the encouragement of their grandfather, Mafeo Roman, Riley and Madeleine started taking tennis more seriously a little over a year ago. Roman, who is still spry at age 85, drove his grandchildren to a number of tennis facilities, including Washington Park, San Mateo High, Balboa Park, Central Park and the College of San Mateo.

"And he still goes out there and takes them to the courts everyday," Brian said.

When Riley and Madeleine aren't playing at the aforementioned places, they're training at Peninsula Tennis Club. The two can simply walk to the facility because they live next door to it. The two also play A.Y.S.O. soccer, and remarkably, tennis has helped them on the pitch as well.

"They used to be (cherry) pickers, shy and out of action," Brian said. "And now they're in the action with their teammates, and I think lot of that has to with tennis and bringing their shyness out."

Indeed, sports have empowered Riley and Madeleine to newfound heights. The two have teamed up to play some doubles together for the Menlo Circus Club in Atherton, beating older teams in the process. Madeleine said her favorite shot is her backhand, and Riley soaks up the game 24/7, watching the Tennis Channel whenever he's not playing.

"My favorite player is Rafael Nadal," said Riley, who likes to wear his tennis outfit to school on occasion. "When I get older, I want to be a pro on TV. I like tennis because it's fun playing with people, getting good rallies and winning. Tennis gives me confidence."

Society can be cruel, harsh and demeaning at times. People who aren't considered "normal" can have a tough time adjusting in society. Although Riley and Madeleine are considered "different," they're highly functional. If you just looked at them, there's no discernible difference with the rest of their peers. It's only when people talk to them that their social differences come out.

"They might appear shy or look off to the side when you talk to them," Brian said. "Autistic kids have challenges interacting with people, and when kids are like that, people think they're misbehaved. But they're very pure, innocent and highly functional. Academically, they're doing just fine and what's endearing about them is they try so hard to compensate for their challenges."

Sure, Riley and Madeleine might have their quirks, but don't we all? The question is, shouldn't we embrace the quirks and idiosyncrasies in people rather than look down upon them? Why are we so quick to judge when none of us are infallible? There's an inspirational quote by an unknown author that reads: "Don't judge those who try and fail, judge those who fail to try."

Well, Riley and Madeleine are trying -- one day at a time -- resulting in a triumph of the human spirit.

"It's inspiring to see them do so well," Brian said. "Even though they're socially challenged, they're in the mainstream."

And that tells you everything you need to know about Riley and Madeleine Wachhorst, a dynamic duo indeed.

***

The CSM baseball team transferred 12 players from this year's state championship, runner-up squad to four-year universities on either an athletic or academic scholarship. The list includes Ryan Allgrove (UC Davis), Pat Burford (York College), Justin Burns (UC San Diego), O'Koyea Dickson (Sonoma State), Trevor Pasiecznik (San Francisco State), Steven Riddle (Hawaii-Hilo), Josh Saio (Concordia), Andrew Suvunnachuen (SF State), Josh Trejo (York), Joey Wallace (UC Santa Barbara), Nick White (Sonoma State) and Thomas Wood (SF State).

***

When Notre Dame de Namur senior Ryan Sheffer won the Sonoma State Invitational golf tournament Monday, he made some history in the process. By capturing the grueling, two-day, three-round, 54-hole event, Sheffer became the first golfer in school history to win an individual championship. The event started Sunday at Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club, with Sheffer shooting an even-par 72. He came back the next day and shot a 70 before firing off another solid 72 for a 214 total. That put Sheffer in a playoff, which he won on the first hole.

Emanuel Lee can be reached: emanuel@smdailyjournal.com and (650) 344 5200, ext. 109.


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