COLUMBIA-In the early afternoon heat, two men, each holding a heavy green ball, stand side-by-side on MU’s Stankowski Field. The older man carefully rolls his ball down the field, aiming to hit a tiny yellow ball yards away.
“That was done incorrectly, Bob!” the younger man jokes. “I’m going straight down the middle.”
Bob Stephens, 65, and Harry Besleme, 30, both of Columbia, are playing bocce, an ancient game made popular in Italy.
They meet twice a week at Stankowski, and sometimes at the court at Sophia’s restaurant in south Columbia, to prepare for the Special Olympics World Games in China this fall.
Stephens is Besleme’s unified partner, meaning he is not a Special Olympics athlete, but the two play as a pair when competing. They have been bocce partners for six years, and it’s their similar personalities that help them communicate and get along well. Jokes are common at their practices.
“I like to tease a little bit,” Besleme says.
A few weeks ago, the pair went to Nashville, Tenn., to train with the rest of Team USA, which has thousands of athletes. But they refused to be intimidated.
“We’re both really laid back,” Stephens said. “It was like two brothers hanging out. They even put us up against a couple of bocce coaches, and we beat them.”
Their brotherhood also stems from the closeness of their families. Besleme’s father, Jim Besleme, worked with Stephens at Hertz Equipment Rental. Both men are now retired, but when they discovered years ago that they each had a son in the Special Olympics, their friendship grew. Stephens’ son, Larry, was a gold medalist in swimming at the world games in 1999. Stephens and Besleme started playing bocce together after Stephens’ wife, Jan, introduced it to them.
For both families, the Special Olympics have been life-changing experiences. Harry Besleme, who decided to participate in Special Olympics seven years ago, said it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. His family has supported him, and he’s made friends and become more outgoing.
Bob Stephens agrees.
“Harry has so much more self-confidence,” he said. “He used to ask me ‘Am I doing OK?’ when we played. Now he voices his own opinion instead.”
Stephens and Besleme won the gold medal in bocce at the Missouri Special Olympics Games in June. They were invited to a Special Olympics summer camp where they underwent evaluation and training to ensure that they could handle the three-week trip to China for the world games.
When they found out they’d been selected, Besleme said he felt pretty good. Besleme said he has an affinity for foreign languages — he speaks some German — and he’s excited to see the culture, to see “a different way of life.”
Stephens and Besleme are trying to shape up their game with the help of a new coach, Frank La Mantia, whose father was a professional bocce player in Italy. La Mantia said coaching for Special Olympics is different than coaching other sports but no less rewarding.
“I explain the strategy of the game to them,” he said. “And to see them grasp it and be successful, it’s so satisfying.”
Bocce involves a surprising amount of strategy. Besleme goes first and rolls his bocce ball in an attempt to block the small yellow ball, the pallino, from the opposing team. Stephens follows and tries to get his ball as close to the pallino as possible. In China, Besleme and Stephens will not be allowed to communicate with La Mantia and will get very little time to talk to each other during play. Besleme, who said he only gets a little nervous, isn’t worried. Stephens feels a bit differently.
“Sometimes I worry I’ll let Harry down,” Stephens said. “Hopefully, we’ll be OK.”
La Mantia emphasizes that winning is not what’s important.
“I tell them it doesn’t matter if they get a gold, a silver, a bronze or nothing,” he said. “It just matters that they did their best.”
That kind of attitude is what makes Special Olympics special for participants and their families. Bob and Jan Stephens said they’ve never seen sportsmanship like they see in the Special Olympics anywhere else. Bob Stephens said he’s seen runners in races stop to help competitors who are falling behind.
“It’ll bring tears to your eyes,” he said.
“Parents of Special Olympics athletes are just proud to see their sons or daughters dribble a basketball or pass it,” Jan Stephens said. “Just to see that accomplishment. They don’t count the number of baskets they make.”
After practice at Stankowski Field, Stephens, Besleme and La Mantia discuss more strategy. They’ll keep practicing until the day they leave in September.
Until then, they’ll just try to keep the ball rolling.