Dena Muskopf has flourished with Special Olympics

Sunday, June 3, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:32 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

During a sports summer camp in 2005, Dena Muskopf said two unspeakable words.

“I can’t.”

Her swimming coach of eight years, Jan Stephens, asked her to swim a 1600-meter race, something she had never done before. Muskopf’s response wasn’t the one she was looking for, so Stephens quickly reminded her athlete of what words are and are not allowed.

“I told her that ‘I can’t’ isn’t in our vocabulary, but ‘I’ll try’ is,” she said.

Muskopf changed her mind. She hopped into the pool to swim the 16 laps requested by her coach and accomplished exactly what she initially thought she couldn’t do.

“(When I finished) I just got out and yelled, ‘I did it!’” Muskopf said with a grin. She continued with the declaration that she would never say “I can’t” again.

It’s times like these that make an athlete, a coach and a parent grateful to have a resource like the Special Olympics to provide athletes with mental disabilities a chance to succeed, especially Muskopf, who was born with developmental disability.

The opening ceremonies for the 2007 SOMO State Summer Games will begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday on MU’s Stankowski Field and will reveal an Elvis inspired theme, “SO Shook Up.” During this time, competitors will be able to participate in the parade of athletes, view the lighting of the Flame of Hope and watch a performance by Elvis. The games will feature nearly 2,000 Special Olympic athletes, including 20 teams from mid-Missouri, competing in events such as soccer, athletics, bocce, aquatics and powerlifting.

The games will also include health screenings at the Healthy Athlete Park on Tuesday at the MU Student Recreation Complex. Athletes will be provided with eye and ear exams, instruction on dental health and an overall health check, among others. A “Viva Las Vegas” dance with Elvis-inspired bingo and card games will conclude the evening.

Muskopf, who will be competing in the 200 breaststroke, 100 freestyle and the 200 freestyle relay at this year’s Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) State Summer Games, has participated in nearly every sport available to Special Olympic athletes including softball, volleyball, golf, track, basketball, and of course, swimming.

Muskopf’s mother, Merribeth Muskopf, said SOMO has given her daughter many athletic opportunities, but she has learned much more than how to improve her swimming strokes to get faster in the pool. Through SOMO she has gained valuable life lessons and

“Sports training is good, but it also helps build social skills, sportsmanship, confidence, independence and work ethic,” she said. “Dena works hard. I mean really, really hard. Things don’t come easy for her, but I do think swimming has helped her.”

Dena Muskopf admits she loves swimming, especially in competitions.

“I love swimming harder than I ever have before,” she said. “Sometimes when I’m swimming, I even feel like a fish.”

She is quite a swimmer. At the 2006 Special Olympics National Games in Ames, Iowa, she won three gold medals with the Mid-Missouri Krickets.

“I was really excited,” she said.

But that’s not the most important part, at least not for Dena Muskopf. Through her time at SOMO, she has come to embody the spirit of true sportsmanship.

At a district competition last year, she noticed some of her friends were upset because they didn’t place as high as they would have liked. She approached them and asked what was wrong.

“They said to me, ‘I didn’t get my gold.’ Then I told them not to worry about that. Worry about how you did. My coach taught me that,” Dena Muskopf said.

“As long as they did their best, I’m happy,” Stephens said. “In whatever they do, I just want them to not worry about places and focus on doing their best.”

Dena Muskopf receives encouragement and support from her family and Stephens, but that’s not her only outlet. A 13-year-old girl named Larissa Monckton from Rocheport has made a great impact on her life.

Instead of hanging out with school friends right after school, Monckton meets Dena Muskopf and other Special Olympic athletes every Thursday at the MU rec complex for swimming practice.

Monckton is Dena Muskopf’s unified partner (a non-Special Olympic athlete paired with a Special Olympic athlete). They met a year ago when Monckton was the unified partner of a friend who played volleyball. When Dena Muskopf invited Monckton to join her in swimming, the two bonded instantly.

Monckton said, “Dena is a good friend of mine. Even when my other friend stopped playing volleyball, I stayed with her to swim.”

Monckton’s mother, Jan Monckton, said the experience has helped both parties.

“She has improved herself by helping others. She’s learned how to accept people as they are. She enjoys the team so much, and I’m glad she’s so willing to help,” she said.

Merribeth Muskopf is a bit surprised at how willing the Moncktons have been to help. She said that unified partners tend to be relatives of the Special Olympic athlete, but Larissa Monckton is not.

“Larissa and her mom have gone out of their way to participate, and they do that for no other reason than just because,” she said.

Competition for the two friends will be held Tuesday at the MU rec complex.

Dena Muskopf is ready to swim.

“I’m ready,” she said. “Oh, yeah, I’m ready.”

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