COLUMBIA — Special Olympics athlete Harry Besleme wasn’t joking when he said he only plays with green. During Monday’s practice at Stankowski Field, with a choice of only red or green balls, Besleme continually chose to play with green.
“It’s my lucky color,” Besleme said.
So before the second game of practice, Jan Stephens, founder of the Bocce program for Special Olympics Missouri, went over to Besleme and quietly instructed him to play with red.
“I wanted to flip him,” Jan Stephens said. “He just gave me one of those looks. I have an autistic son. I know what those looks mean: I’m not happy. He always plays with green. He will not deviate. You don’t want him to go over there and have to play with red. It’s changing routine. Changing routine with an autistic child is not good.”
Besleme, 31, will compete in Unified Bocce in the 12th Special Olympics World Games in Shangai, China, from October 2-11. According to Special Olympics Missouri, Unified is a term to describe a mixed team of one mentally disabled player and one who is not. Bob Stephens, Jan Stephens’ husband, has played Bocce with Besleme for over a year and will compete in Shangai as Besleme’s unified partner.
According to Special Olympics Missouri, nearly 7,500 athletes from over 165 countries will compete in 19 different sports. Team USA will send 401 athletes and 102 coaches. Besleme and Bob Stephens will be the only athletes from Missouri on Team USA.
“We’re like senators,” Bob Stephens said.
Special Olympics Missouri sent 16 athletes and four coaches for the 11th Special Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland; for the 10th Special Olympics World Games in Raleigh, North Carolina, the organization sent 67 athletes and 47 coaches and delegates. The reduced number of Missouri athletes competing in the World Games is partly due to funding. Special Olympics Missouri raises its own money and covers all expenses for the athletes.
“It’s all paid for by raising our own money,” said Susan Shaffer, Special Olympics Missouri Competition Coordinator. “It’s free for them (athletes). Clothing, luggage, everything they need to compete is paid for.”
Although the lack of funding is unfortunate, Bob Stephens just makes light of the subject.
“I guess we’re just outnumbered,” he said. “And the main thing is that we’re going to go over there and have a lot of fun, make sure Harry does his best, hopefully come home with a medal, but if he doesn’t, it’s not the main thing.”
Besleme has been a Special Olympics athlete for seven yars. On top of Bocce, he also competes in bowling, track and field and volleyball, which is his favorite. Bob Stephens, 67, has been working with Special Olympics for over 20 years. He first got involved with the organization for his son, who is also diagnosed with autism.
Larry Stephens, coached by Jan Stephens, won gold in the 50m backstroke and bronze in the 50m freestyle during the Raleigh World Games.
“I was in the stands and watched him (Larry) walk in,” Jan Stephens said. “It takes a lot for me to cry. I just burst into tears.”
That seems to be an exaggeration on her part. During Saturday’s Missouri Football game, in between the first and second quarter, Besleme and Bob Stephens were brought onto Faurot Field in recognition of their accomplishment. Jan Stephens, watching from the stands, again succombed to her emotions.
“I had tears in my eyes for both of them,” she said. “To have them recognized as THE Missouri athletes was just...wow.”
Bob Stephens experienced the same emotion — although not to the extent of his wife — but was more worried about where he was standing.
“We were at the south end zone,” he quickly clarified. “Not the infamous north one where everything goes wrong with Missouri. Not the fifth down or the Nebraska kick. I’ve been following Missouri football for years. I hate that endzone.”
Besleme also enjoyed the recognition.
“It was pretty cool and neat to be on the screen.” he said.
For Jan Stephens, Saturday’s on-field recognition symbolized the mission of Special Olympics.
“That’s Special Olympics,” she said. “That’s the truth behind Special Olympics: to get involved. As long as the athletes feel good about what they did. It’s not about the medals — now I’m not saying I wouldn’t want them to (win a medal) — but that’s been my goal in 21 years of coaching Special Olympics: to build confidence, to make them feel included.”
But for Besleme, it’s just about representing his hometown.
“It’s pretty cool to represent Columbia,” he said.