By Joseph Robertia
Walking into many area businesses, it is not uncommon to find pictures on the wall from various events and teams sponsored, from traditional sports like baseball, football and soccer, to more uniquely Alaska events, such as mushing, and even the occasional stock car racer will garner local support.
One pool of athletes who could use more pictures on walls, and the accompanying support, are athletes preparing for the Special Olympics. As practice for their games begins to ratchet up this month, everything from volunteers, to uniforms and financial assistance is needed to get them through another successful season.
“We’re just beginning eight weeks of training in basketball, swimming and bowling, and we need support to offset the costs of things like going to the bowling alley, using the pool, etc; but also we need the support so they can continue to have these opportunities,” said Tina Strayhorn, an organizer of Central Peninsula Special Olympics Team, one of 17 teams that make up the broader Special Olympics Alaska division, which encompasses roughly 400 athletes who compete annually.
“We’re just beginning to put together the teams, looking at their individual skills and seeing what they’re best at,” Strayhorn said.
Dozens of athletes from Hope Community Resources, Frontier Community Services, Peninsula Community Heath Services and various other support agencies make up the teams, and athletes range in age from 8 to adult.
“We have some athletes in their 60s,” Strayhorn said.
The athletes first sharpen their skills by practicing with each other and move on to competing against other local teams, such as the Homer team May 4. Then the best competitors from the local teams go to Anchorage for state-level competition at the Special Olympics Summer Games from June 8 to 10. From there, the best of the best may move on to the national level, or possibly even international-level competition at the Special Olympics World Games.
Linda Williams has an 18-year-old daughter, Katrina, who has Down’s syndrome. Katrina has participated in the Special Olympics for eight years, including a few in Washington prior to moving to Alaska. Williams said that, considering how much the athletes get out of participating, it is essential that enough community support comes in to keep them going.
“Katrina can do laps for an hour straight,” Williams said.
But that wasn’t always the case. Like many first-time swimmers, her daughter had to be coaxed into the water. When comfortable, she began walking laps, then dunking her head and holding her breath, then being able to swim and take breaths when needed.
“For some people, this would only take a month, but for those with developmental delays, it could take a year or more,” Williams said. “So it’s very inspiring to me to see how far she’s come. She’s so fast now — she’s so funny with it — when competing, she’ll actually slow down to watch her competition.”
This is a concept many outsiders may not consider when thinking about the games — that competing against others is an exciting journey for the athletes, and not just the final destination of their skills.
“There is huge camaraderie to the games and within the team. They love to cheer each other on, especially in the relay events,” Williams said. “They’re not just competing against others; they compete against themselves, trying to break their own past records. And when it’s all over, they’re already asking when they can start again.”
Williams said that the benefits of competing in the Special Olympics far outweigh what brought them there as athletes.
“The disability is sort of irrelevant,” Williams said. “It’s finding what they need to participate and succeed.”
The structure provided by the games and practicing for them also helps the athletes, particularly those with varying degrees of autism, such as 11-year-old Bryce Braun, a first-year athlete. Bryce thrives on routines, said his grandfather, Kurt Braun.
“Just coming here is not in his regular routine. He’s used to driving by. So even though he loves swimming, it was a bit of a meltdown at first,” said his grandfather, Kurt Braun, about the first swimming practice for the team last week at the pool at Skyview High School.
But once Bryce got in the water, he swam like a fish, which brought joy to his grandparent watching from the deck.
“He’s doing better than I thought he would,” Braun said. “He has communication issues. He’s verbal to a point, but his understanding is in question. He’s come a long way. We’ve wanted to get him involved in this for a few years, but wanted to wait until he could follow instructions well enough.”
Suzanne Fisler’s 21-year-old son, Corey, also has autism, and said that she learned from an early age the benefits of water to some children with this disorder.
“When he was little, if he was having a big outburst, you could stick him in the tub and, boom, it was done. The pressure (of the water) helps him with his sensitivity issues,” she said.
Now older, Corey has been an athlete for more than a decade, and loves to participate in the Special Olympics.
“I grew up on the water, so it was just mandatory that kids learn how to swim, but now, all of this, it’s all him. He wants to swim and compete. The 25- to 50-yard freestyle is really his event, but he also does the backstroke and we’re teaching him the breaststroke,” Fisler said.
Lois Azzara said her 55-year-old sister, Cindy, has competed in the games for the past five years, and although she is taking this year off due to medical issues, she gained a lot from her time competing.
“The games gave her drive to compete, it was good exercise, and she developed a lot of friendships with the other participants. She also enjoyed the ribbons and medals. It made her feel good about herself,” Azzara said. “The reward of all this really is their smiles. It’s so important for them, and we need support for it to continue.”
The 2013 Alaska Law Enforcement Torch Run and Pledge Drive is one of the Special Olympics’ largest fundraisers of the year, and it is coming up May 18 at 10 a.m. Volunteers and financial assistance are needed for this and other activities.
To learn more about ways to sponsor the local games, call 907-420-7127 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations can be mailed to Special Olympics Central Peninsula Alaska, P.O. Box 1656, Kenai, AK, 99611.