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May 10, 2005 > Local Olympians go for gold

Local Olympians go for gold

by Tony C. Yang

Beads of sweat show the runners' determination to win, while a chorus of cheers from the crowd provides more motivation. Crossing the finish line, the athletes raise their weary arms in triumph. As they congratulate one other, each runner lines up next to the podium and receives a medal. It appears that every participant is a winner.

The motto of the Special Olympics is: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt." This past weekend in Pleasanton, hundreds of Special Olympians and their families braved finicky weather to attend the 2005 Special Olympics- East Bay Region Track and Field and Volleyball Competition at Amador Valley High School. Teams from Fremont, Hayward and Union City made up a portion of the 350 total athletes competing, with about 250 volunteers in supporting roles.

Ken Dami, regional vice president of Special Olympics Northern California, considers the participants "my neighbors." Having worked in the corporate world, Dami made the jump to the non-profit sector and Special Olympics 15 years ago because, "seeing somebody's life change" is rewarding in itself, he said.

Locally, Union City has a Special Needs branch of its Leisure Services department, which is highly involved in encouraging developmentally disabled teens socially and physically.
The Union City Clubhouse offers a variety of activities and social gatherings for these youth; from bocce ball at Fremont's City Beach to swimming at the Dan Oden Swim Complex, there is something for every aspiring Special Olympian.

"It's important to tell these people that it's okay to participate as an athlete," said Cathy Domanski, sports manager and Special Olympics regional director for the East Bay.

After winning a gold medal in the 25 meter walk and a silver medal in the softball throw, Kevin Richmond of Walnut Creek was visibly excited and "all smiles." His mother, Carole Dahl, was on hand to speak for him: "He's been doing this for a number of years and he loves to practice." When asked why they keep coming back, Dahl replied, "I love it and he loves it." Richmond and Dahl aren't the only ones.

According to its national website, the Special Olympics games were founded in 1962 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and currently serve 1.7 million intellectually disabled people in over 150 countries. From Alpine skiing to Tennis, the Special Olympics do it all. While there is no maximum age limit for participants, athletes must be at least 8 years old, have an accredited disability and be properly registered.

Participation in the Union City Clubhouse and Special Olympics is free, and supported largely through the dedication of its coaches, volunteers and the athletes' families, as well as the community at large. Participants say one of the best things about Special Olympics is its inclusiveness and a "strong feeling of community." More information is available at:

Chris Valuckas, Special Needs coordinator for Union City's Leisure Services agency, is proud that his Special Olympics program is supported by both the Northern California chapter and the city. "The Union City Special Olympics team is a unique collaboration that started in 2000," he said. "The city usually provides facilities and promotional support while Special Olympics provide uniforms and equipment. Both organizations work together to get volunteers." It is this spirit of cooperation that has allowed developmentally disabled individuals to train and compete in athletics.

Tri-City Athletics coach Sim Hothi initially wanted to join the "Big Brother" or "Big Sister" program, but after researching other volunteer opportunities online, she found Special Olympics. "The athletes get so happy," she said. "They enjoy it." Hothi has been with the olympics for four years.

Another coach, Trisha Grenfell of Pleasanton, says, "It's a humbling experience." As a games management volunteer, she coordinated the opening ceremonies, to include the singing of the national anthem, the oath recitation and the opening torch run. Grenfell added, "It really shows you what's important."

It is truly a labor of love that puts on such an event, and it is a credit to the generosity of communities that run these competitions. Only a handful of organizers are paid staff, usually affiliated with Special Olympics; most staff and coaches are volunteers.

Student volunteer Caitlin MacDonald; a varsity soccer, cross-country and track athlete at Amador High School; whose cousin has cerebral palsy, sees her own part as a way to give back to the community. "They're getting the opportunity to do what I do," she said. "To participate in athletic events like this- it's such a great experience."

Domanski notes that it is only through the help of volunteers that there is "a chance for these kids to go out and achieve."

Sports participation is challenging enough for adolescents, but to compete as a developmentally disabled teen takes a special kind of courage. "I've seen their camaraderie, their network of friends, their skill sets grow over the season, over the years," said volleyball coach Anna Chan, of the San Mateo Blazers. "I'm so proud of my athletes."

They're proud of her too. Blazer Bill Heinrich says Special Olympics keeps him busy: "I like sports- it's good exercise." Even the most experienced athletes are no strangers to optimism; Blazer Tod Ostrum said, "I been doing it for 30 years. I'm going to win! We win!" Chan, who has been coaching for five years, adds, "It sounds cheesy, but Special Olympics is really priceless. It reminds you of what's important in life."

With the summer championships in Track and Aquatics events at Stockton coming in June, it is a sure bet that all around the Tri-City area, hundreds of hard-working coaches and families will be behind the athletes all the way.
"I love doing this," Chan said.

Olympics East Bay Region (Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano Counties)
3480 Buskirk Ave. #340
Pleasant Hill, CA 94523-4343
P: 925.944.8801
F: 925.944.8803
Contact: Ken Dami, Regional VP

Special Olympics Silicon Valley Region (Monterey, San Benito, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz Counties)
1445 Koll Circle, Suite 104
San Jose, CA 95112
P: 408.392.0170
F: 408.392.0158
Contact: Aubrey Merriman, Regional VP

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