COLUMBIA – It all started with fun, small games for Zane Zika, who won three gold medals at Saturday's Special Olympics Missouri State Summer Games.
"Make it rain, Zane!"
Two years ago, chants such as this were the only way coach Amanda Asaro could get Zane to swim. Zane smiled with every splash of water that wet his coaches. Little did he know that with every splash he was developing his motor skills.
The 10-year-old has Down syndrome and is entering his second year with the Sharks Special Olympics swim team from St. Charles. He first started swimming when he was six months old and followed the lead of his three older brothers, who are also competitive swimmers.
He started competing at the Special Olympics after the kids he played against in baseball and soccer started to get bigger and it became harder for Zane to keep up.
With swimming, Zane knows what he has to do and he can do them at his own pace.
When he shows up to practice, he knows he must swim the length of the pool six or seven times, but he breaks down the work with games. When kickboards are brought out, he will start laughing as he dips and shoots them as far as he can, making the instructor chase it. And while he laughs, he grows stronger by kicking and paddling to stay afloat.
"This year, he's come a long way. He's at the point where he needs someone in the water to hold him back until the bell sounds," Asaro said. "Nine times out of 10, he'll take off."
After the bell, Zane feeds off the energy of the crowd and loves it when the fans in the stands chant his name. He is out to play and have a blast in a fun atmosphere created by his peers and coach.
Zane also thrives when he knows he has a support group in the stands. When Asaro tells him his parents are watching, he puts forth his best effort in the pool.
Kenny Zika was present at the MU Student Recreation Center to watch his son clinch victories in the 15-meter assisted swim, 15-meter flotation race and 10-meter unassisted swim. He took a moment to compose himself after reflecting on his proudest moment watching Zane in sports.
"Every day there is a problem, but watching the kids here is emotional," Zika said. "Watching the medals, seeing him out there hitting a baseball, kicking a soccer ball, and the school part, seeing where he's grown when I come home. As a parent, those are proud moments."
Next up for Zane — the National Special Olympics.
"I hope that one day, we can get to that point and we can do it," Zika said. "It's about the seriousness for him to do that. If I can get him serious, I think that would be fantastic."
As Zane walked out of the recreation center, his three gold medals clanked together and spectators congratulated the boy in the shark shirt and black tights. For now, everything is just a game, and he's on to the next one.
This story was written by one of 11 students participating in the Sports Journalism Institute, hosted by MU. This is the 22nd class for the Institute, designed to provide minority and female students with a start in the sports journalism industry. This is SJI's third year at Missouri.