Special Olympics memorable for athletes, volunteers

Thursday, June 7, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:09 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Special Olympics have been part of Shauna Balk’s life for as long as she can remember.

Balk is the volunteer coordinator for the Special Olympics, but her involvement began long before she held this position. After being introduced to the games by her grandmother, who was a coach for the athletes, Balk also decided to volunteer, and the athletes kept her coming back.

“It’s getting to meet the athletes and getting to see such genuine people,” said Balk.

Balk and others who give their time to help Special Olympics athletes have a chance to see that making a difference in another person’s life, and possibly changing your own, can be as simple as taking the time to volunteer.

“It’s so inspiring to see our athletes,” said Cassie Shields, Special Olympics associate central area director. “I can’t really describe it unless you’ve seen our athletes.”

Each year, the Missouri Special Olympics strives to have 1,000 volunteers assisting its athletes in their most momentous competition of the year, helping them succeed in their events and ensuring that the games operate without a hitch.

“When people hear that (number), they’re shocked,” Shields said. But such a large number is necessary to make the games exceptional for the athletes.

Volunteers help with the games in a variety of ways. Through what is called the “buddy system,” some volunteers are paired with an athlete and are able to work one-on-one with them in their events.

At awards ceremonies, where athletes receive their medals in Olympic fashion on pedastals, volunteers bestow the athletes with the awards they’ve earned. Other volunteer options include escorting athletes to their events, timing events and setting up and dismantling the temporary tents and booths used for the event.

“This is such a big event for our athletes, so we want to make it a big production for them,” Shields said.

Because of the involvement of community members and their willingness to volunteer, the athletes’ experiences are enhanced.

“We have a mix of individuals and also groups,” Balk said. “There are groups that are always reliable and come through. We equally have a number of volunteers who are just people who want to help the community and do something different.”

Although 1,000 volunteers is optimal, a shortage of volunteers would never prevent the games from proceeding.

“We will always make the competition happen, Balk said. “It’s just the quality of the competition that’s affected when we don’t have enough people.”

For Special Olympics athletes, she said, it’s just about enjoying the sport.

“They’re happy to win,” Balk said. “They’re happy for other people when they win.”

At the games, obstacles that might hinder the athletes’ experiences outside the games are nonexistent.

“Here, you can do anything you want,” said Abby Hewitt, a volunteer. “There aren’t any limitations.”

— Kelli White

Practice pays off

Ann Blase’s favorite part of swimming is the competition.

“I practice a lot and stay focused physically and mentally to prepare for tournaments,” she said.

Blase and her team, the Stingrays, won the silver medal at a relay race on Tuesday at the Special Olympics.

Blase, 40, also won gold medals in three other races she swam in Tuesday.

Katherine Cummins, a volunteer with Columbia Parks and Recreation who has worked with the team since January, said she was excited watching the races.

“I have seen quite a few gold medals, and this group has been close to their personal bests,” she said.

Another volunteer, Carolina Beard, 25, said her favorite thing about volunteering with this group was the tournaments and seeing them rewarded for all of their hard work.

“Some (participants) were more confident than they have ever been before,” Cummins said.

— Brittany Burns

Golden feeling for KC soccer team

Spectators on the sidelines gasped when one of the players on the Park Hill team took a soccer ball directly to the face in the final game. Assistant coach Mike Garrison was out on the field in a second to make sure his player was OK. The young man was barely phased, but chose to sit out. A new team member was sent in, and the game went on.

For the first time in the Summer Special Olympics, soccer was added to the games. The game is usually played in the fall, but less time to train didn’t throw off Park Hill.

After winning the game 6 to 2, the young adults men’s team ran toward the awards station at Hinkson field with fists pumping.

“I’m really proud of them,” Garrison said. “And they have a lot of fun.”

Their enthusiasm was consistent all day. Megan Ostling, a volunteer, noticed their cheers after each goal scored.

“They were really excited,” she said.

“We are the champions,” one sang. “We are going to be weighed down by all these medals,” another added.

The team from the Kansas City area has played together for three years, and has previously won two gold medals at the State Special Olympics.

As their names were called, some stepped forward. Others raised their hands in the air for victory. But all of them did the same thing when the gold was placed around their neck. Instead of reaching for the outstretched hand of the medal awarder, they reached up to touch the medal, feeling the cool gold in their hand, in contrast to the hot June day.

After a volunteer read all the team members’ names, one player on the list was without a medal. He entered the hospital last night for medical reasons and missed the competition. But the team saved a medal for him so he could feel the gold around his neck, as if he had been there sharing in the victory.

— Holly Jackson

Selfless swimmers succeed

Rachel O’Brien is a self-proclaimed water baby.

“A whale,” chimed in teammate Leslie Fortel.

O’Brien, 24, and Fortel, 59, made up half of a relay team competing in the 200-meter freestyle relay in the Special Olympics on Tuesday afternoon. The team took second place in the event.

The Independence YMCA swim team was easy to spot Tuesday. Eleven of the team’s swimmers competed, and coaches donned bright yellow T-shirts proclaiming, “Fish gotta swim ... so do I.”

Assistant coach Mary Cassidy, 48, offered words of encouragement to one of Independence’s two relay teams as they lined up in front of the pool in the MU Aquatic Center.

Cassidy mentioned to nearby volunteers that O’Brien, her daughter, is one of the team’s strongest swimmers.

All the swimmers on the team have excelled, and all were veterans of the Special Olympics.

The athletes on the relay team said they enjoyed swimming every stroke, but Bobby Williams, 32, said he enjoys freestyle in particular because “you know where you’re going,” unlike backstroke where swimmers can’t see in front of themselves.

Cassidy said she enjoys preparing the team for the Special Olympics because the athletes are genuine and have good attitudes.

“You don’t have a lot of the ‘me first’ stuff,” she said. “They’re teams, and they’re all in there to have fun. They’re just out there to do their best.”

— Sarah Christiansen

How courage melted a first-timer’s self-doubt

Human nature pushes everyone forward, toward a goal, a finish line or a red and blue ribbon. The only differences are the challenges faced and the amount of courage needed to strive ahead.

For Jessica, the excitement of her first games pushed her. The young teen, in a blue T-shirt and matching visor glittering with her name, waited in her motorized wheelchair at the starting line.

Jessica’s legs trembled enthusiastically. Her whole body buzzed with energy.

After she finished, her coach joked: “What did you do that donut for? You totally messed up your time.”

Jessica’s only reply was a giant smile.

When it was his turn, Sean accelerated his chair so fast he popped up on the back two wheels and laughed the whole way.

Likewise, Loretta couldn’t wait for her turn as she pushed back her salt and peppered hair with a sun visor. All she needed was the “Ready? Go!” and the tennis balls on her walker were rushing down the rubberized track at Stankowski Field.

But some athletes had more fears to overcome.

The long brown ponytail of a little girl shook against her yellow shirt as she cried for her dad to carry her. Her decorated leg brace showed beneath her athletic shorts.

“Sarah, you have to walk so you can do your race,” her dad said. “Come on, it’s right over here.”

She refused to walk to the line, and volunteers and her family thought she might not be racing today.

“You can just start from there,” the lead volunteer offered.

Sarah watched as the finish line was moved 10 meters from where she stood. Grabbing the hand of her teacher, she started the race. It only took a few feet of support until she wanted to be on her own. After Sarah heard the crowd cheer her independence in the assisted walk, she was all smiles when she felt the ribbon on her chest.

— Mary Ellen Poff

Reunion for close friends

When Michelle Laberer finished swimming her last event on Tuesday, one of the first hands she reached for belonged to her long-time friend, Cindy van Landingham.

Laberer and Landingham, both 19, have been friends since they were born. They spent three months together in the neo-natal intensive care unit at University Hospital in Columbia. Both girls, who were born premature, weighed less than two pounds at birth.

Even though Michelle lives in Union and Cindy in Kirksville, they stayed best friends, spending nights on the phone with each other.

“I thought me and Cindy were sisters,” Michelle said.

Distance still keeps the two apart, so every year’s Special Olympics is a reunion for them.

“They look forward to the state competition because that’s the only time they see each other,” said Michelle’s mother, Barbara.

Michelle swam for the Union team at the competition, and when she wasn’t in the pool, Cindy was never far from her side. Michelle’s face lit up with a smile as she described getting to spend time with Cindy as “awesome.”

The Special Olympics is also a memorable event for Michelle because it’s where she met her boyfriend, Brian Beamer of Moberly, at a bowling event two years ago, when the games were held in Joplin.

Even though she already graduated from high school, Michelle plans to stay involved in the Special Olympics. As Michelle, out of breath and soaking wet from her race, hugs Cindy, it’s easy to see why.

— Laura Myers

Blind athletes run to victory

Angel Shelton and Cindy Johnson looked like sisters when they were dancing to the music in the Walton Stadium parking lot. They share the same braided hair, are about the same height and have the same fun-loving personalities.

Before Shelton, 18, took off for her race Tuesday, someone from the crowd shouted “M.S.B.,” her school’s initials. Supporters on the sidelines laughed as she started dancing and waving her hands in the air.

Shelton and Johnson, 17, made a scene at the opening ceremonies Monday night, when an Elvis impersonator sang to them and hugged them. Both screamed with joy and acted like they were swooning.

But when they set up for their races at Walton Stadium, the only thing that set them apart was when they separated themselves from other runners by one lane.

There was no other indication, aside from their coach guiding them through the curves of the track with her voice, that these best friends are legally blind.

As students in the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis, they have no more than 20/400 vision with corrective lenses. But the girls opt to run without corrected vision, making the turns difficult and different from their adapted track at school.

“When she comes around that curve and sees the fence, shes doesn’t know it’s a fence,” said coach Sharon Colantonio, of Shelton.

Colantonio is one of three coaches for the eight athletes the school brought to the summer games. She was beside each girl during the races and cheered them on to their victories.

The only blind athletes in their races, Shelton received a bronze medal for the 200-meter dash, and Johnson won the gold medal for the 100-meter dash.

— Holly Jackson

Long jumpers show they can take the heat

By noon, the standing long jump competition on Stankowski Field was winding down. The remaining competitors crowded the tent and waited for their turn to jump.

Many of the athletes had already been there for hours, running and throwing in the heat, and the long jump was the only thing keeping them from lunch and air conditioning.

Yet despite the tired limbs and sweat, the athletes maintained their enthusiasm.

Julia, 12, had been at the Special Olympics all morning and had already participated in throwing and running events, but she was ready to go again. As she walked to the sand pits, she chatted excitedly about the competition.

“The run was my favorite,” she said. “It was eight laps, but I did it.”

Once she made it to her assigned spot, she lined her toes up on the marker, bent her knees and jumped. Her feet landed perfectly in the sand, and a smile spread across her tanned face.

For some, the impending competition could raise sagging spirits. An athlete, waiting for one of the last heats, sat slumped in his chair and leaned against a family member. When his name was called, he stayed there.

“Come on,” his coach said, trying to persuade him to stand. “It’s time to do the long jump.”

That was all he needed. He sprang up and cheered, leaving the shade for one more chance at a medal.

— Laura Myers

New to America, ‘brothers’ eager to volunteer

They introduced themselves as brothers, but it wasn’t blood that bound them.

Wei and Pong just met last week. They came to America from the same province in China to study at MU and met on the flight to Missouri. Now, they are living in the same building, helping each other perfect their English and adjusting to life in America together.

After arriving Friday, Wei and Pong spent the weekend watching television and playing video games. On Tuesday, they decided to get out and explore MU’s campus.

Armed with four different maps, these new brothers found their way to Stankowski Field, where some Special Olympics events were held. After stopping to watch some of the Bocce Ball competitions, Wei and Pong signed up to volunteer.

They were given free T-shirts, a free lunch and a warm welcome from the volunteer staff, who were happy to see more people willing to help. While manning the awards booth, Wei and Pong offered the athletes high fives and a cold glasses of water as they made their way off the field.

About 20 volunteers handed out about 400 medals on Tuesday. They expected to hand out another 1,600 awards Wednesday.

Although few of the volunteers were registered to help on Wednesday, almost everyone agreed to return for the second day of the Special Olympics. Given the promise of another free lunch and more good company, Wei and Pong were among those who agreed to come back. It must beat watching television.

— Annelise Searle

A race with without competitors, but full of meaning

His hands gripped the wheels of his chair as he sat alone staring at the empty track in front of him. To his left and right there was nothing but the painted lanes.

A chalk line marked the starting point for the 800-meter wheelchair race where one participant, Michael Richmond, was waiting. In the distance a man in a green event coordinator T-shirt stood with his starting pistol in the air. Bang. Smoke billowed from the gun and disappeared in the sticky breeze.

Michael’s arms rapidly began to rotate the wheels of his chair, much like the arms of a locomotive. Spectators watched as he rounded the corner of the track. Cheering him on, a supporter jogged alongside the athlete to keep up with the pace of his wheelchair.

With no competition leaving a dust trail to follow and no one lagging behind him, this was a true test of self-endurance. It was a competition with himself to prove that he could make it.

“Clear the track,” a coordinator yelled just as Michael came into sight around the fourth corner. Screams of “Michael, keep going!” and “Good job, Michael!” were heard as he wheeled past the spectators sitting under the colorfully striped tents.

A smile curled on his face, scrunching his cheeks, and his arms began to move faster. He crossed the white chalk once more, beginning his final lap.

A few minutes elapsed as Richmond circled the track. Then a burst of cries boomed through the summer air as he crossed the finish line, placing first. Later he received a gold medal, and it didn’t even matter that he was the only participant.

He still found glory.

— Abbey Trescott

Special Olympics of Missouri torch run among world’s best fundraisers

“We’re behind you every step of the way.”

This phrase was created by Susan Stegeman, chief development officer of the Special Olympics, for the law enforcement torch run T-shirts this year.

The torch run is held in 50 states and in 35 countries. It began 21 years ago as a 30-mile run, but now it is a four-day relay covering more than 950 miles.

“I work with law enforcement all across the state to raise money for the Special Olympics,” Stegeman said. “They have chosen Special Olympics as their No. 1 charity in the world.”

Law enforcement does a number of fundraisers for this event. One is the “Polar Bear Plunge.”

“People pay money to jump in freezing cold water in February,” Stegeman said.

They also sell shirts and hats.

When Stegeman started working for this nonprofit organization 17 years ago, it was raising about $40,000.

“When we cracked $100,000, it was phenomenal,” Stegeman said. “It took us about three years to do this, and it was just so much money.”

Currently, it is raising $1 million and has done so for the past three years.

The Special Olympics takes place throughout the country. There is a Special Olympics conference that they attend every year.

“It is very competitive, but it is a great sharing and learning process,” Stegeman said.

Missouri has been ranked in the top 10 for the past seven years at the Special Olympic Conference, and Missouri law enforcement’s torch run ranks eighth in the world for raising money.

— Brittany Burns

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