OBERLIN — Knees bent, arms extended in front of her with her fists clasped together, Imani Whitworth stands ready to react.
With her long black hair pulled into a ponytail with loose tendrils falling over her ears and a smile on her face, she steps up to the 10-foot line in the middle of the court — several feet from the official serving lining.
While there is a clear rule on where players must stand to serve in a game of volleyball, there are exceptions to every rule. And, in the case of Imani Whitworth, an exceptional player on the Langston Middle School seventh-grade volleyball team, rules are made to be broken.
“I’m the kind of person that tells you what we’re going to do — not ask,” said Coach Sharhonda Rankin. “I just tell the other coaches at the start of each game that we have a special-needs player and this is what we are going to do for her.
“If she serves the ball and it goes over the net, then that’s great. If we get a point and they don’t want to let it count, that is great, too. This is not about points,” Rankin said. “This is about Imani playing. She is a part of our team.”
Imani has Down syndrome.
Imani’s mother, Lydia Young, says her daughter has a heart bigger than people twice her age, but on a learning level she is like a first-grader. Some would see that as the biggest reason to keep her out of a complex organized sport like volleyball, but Young is a fierce protector of her daughter and her No. 1 advocate.
It didn’t hurt that Rankin was a good friend who has known the cherub-faced girl for years. Young didn’t have to do much convincing to get Rankin to agree to have Imani on the team, although she has never had a special-needs player — let alone one with such a severe disability.
“But I said, ‘Let’s just do it and see what happens,’ ” Rankin said. “I know Imani, but I also know what Imani can do if she puts her heart to it. Being with her peers has always proven to be her greatest motivation.”
Rankin knew that from experience.
For many years, Imani’s individualized learning plan included one task over and over: Teachers wanted her to learn to tie her shoes. Year after year, it was marked as a top goal, and each year it was one Imani simply couldn’t accomplish.
“Finally, she got to the fifth grade and I told them we have to stop pressuring her to do this because it’s just becoming her failure,” Young said. “Then, she spent the day with Sharhonda’s daughter, Savannah, and you know what — she taught Imani how to tie her shoe in less than an hour. It was like Savannah told Imani she could do it and Imani decided right then and there that she was right.”
Still, Young said allowing her daughter — who lives a safe, cocooned life — out into the world of competitive sports was not easy. At first, uncertainty filled her head.
What if the other teams didn’t want to play against her? What if the parents in the stands said something because Imani was not performing to their standards? What if it was too hard for her? Young will readily admit all of those questions crossed her mind, and they did so more than once.
Finally, Young said she decided — on a day when her daughter smiled big at her and asked once again if she could play volleyball — to let Imani do it. If Imani is happy playing volleyball then volleyball is what she was going to play, Young said.
“I’m the kind of mom where I’m like, ‘That’s my baby and she can do,’ ” Young said from her spot high in the stands on a recent Monday evening.
Imani was across the gym sitting in a chair, waiting to be put into the game by Rankin.
From time to time, Imani would clap her hands, cheering her team on as her teammates played a hard game. When it is Imani’s time to serve against the girls of Clearview’s Durling Middle School, Rankin instructs her to do her best to get the ball over the net.
Imani has played in every game of the season, but serving isn’t exactly an easy task to learn.
As she steps to the line, a random cheer rises from the crowd of parents, classmates and community members.
“Go, Imani,” a female student yells out.
Hearing her name, Imani’s head lifts just a bit and she smiles. Then, with a thrust of her arms, Imani hits the ball and it sails into the air but catches in the center of the net.
With a thud and a bounce, the ball hits the floor. The referee blows his whistle, signaling a service error.
Imani’s play doesn’t result in the sort of back and forth play the players stood waiting for, but the gym erupts in cheers that would make any outsider believe Imani scored the winning point.
Screams of “Good job, Imani” emerge from various places in the gym as Rankin nudges the novice player to rotate to the next position.
“She’s the most enthusiastic player you have ever met,” said Sandra Redd, the parent of another player on the team who is mildly mentally disabled. Her daughter is in a class with Imani but may go into mainstream classes in high school. “This is Imani in her element.”
Imani plays a few more rotations Monday before she is pulled out by Rankin. It’s only a few moments, but it’s enough for Imani. She will tell you that she doesn’t want to get hit by the ball so she won’t stand too close to the net.
After the game — the first win of the season for the Langston team — Imani will boast that Rankin is very clear about what she expects her to do in a game.
“Stay focused, rotate and move your feet is what you do,” Imani says, never allowing the smile to leave her face.
Then, in a few short answers, Imani sums up why she wants to play volleyball.
“Because I’m a volleyball player,” she says. “I like volleyball. It’s my favorite sport. I learned to serve, and I learned to hit the ball.”
John Crecelius, the school’s principal and athletic director, said when it comes to students like Imani, inclusion trumps competition every time.
“We want everyone to play at their level,” he said. “We have players on the basketball team and football team that are special-needs students. They bring something to the game that other players don’t and we will never turn them away.”
Crecelius said even the teams that have traditionally been the most competitive have not spoken ill of Imani. Instead, they are in the stands and on the sidelines cheering her on, too.
Several weeks ago, Imani’s teacher Sue McDaniel, an intervention specialist with the district for more than 30 years, said she stopped by the gym one day when Imani was playing. What she saw reinforced for her that pushing Imani to join the team was the right thing to do.
“When she went in, the crowd started calling her name, she just had this giant smile on her face,” McDaniel said. “It was her enthusiasm, but also the way everyone in the gym responded. It was just so exciting. It brought tears to my eyes.”
McDaniel said she now sees a different side of Imani.
“You can tell she is very proud of the fact that she is playing volleyball,” McDaniel said. “She is more excited. She is having a ball.”
Young said she also sees a change in her daughter.
“Imani was a kid who always had an excuse about why she couldn’t go to school. But this year, she is excited about going to school,” Young said. “She has even started going to the gym with her father. She has caught this athletic bug and wanting to be healthy. Her drive is huge now.”
Rankin and Young both would love to see Imani continue playing volleyball, possibly as a high school athlete. But right now there is no certainty that there will be a place for a player like Imani.
“But I don’t care if they don’t let her in a game,” Young said. “I would let Imani just be with the team, practicing and traveling to games with them. She loves it that much.”
Rankin said Imani has at least one more year of playing for her.
Even though she decided to be the coach four years ago only because her daughter Savannah, now in the 10th grade at Elyria High School, needed a coach when she was at Langston, Rankin said she won’t leave Imani now.
“I couldn’t do that to her. I’m too worried about there being another coach here who won’t give Imani a chance to shine,” she said.
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or email@example.com.