Athletes shine at summer games

One hundred eleven of Missouri’s 114 counties have Special Olympics programs.
Beth Brokamp (right) and volunteer Jennifer Drewing make an "X" for strike during the Special Olympics Missouri Bowling event at AMF Town and Country Lanes on Sunday. Brokamp and her family were named Special Olympics Missouri Family of the Year in 2012.

The Kansas City metro area, decked out in matching neon-orange T-shirts, arrived first in the Parade of Athletes. Southwest Missouri followed, proceeding in to the classic pump-up riffs of “Eye of the Tiger.”

Hundreds more athletes and coaches followed, pausing to exchange high-fives and hugs with the law enforcement officials and wave to the family, friends and fellow athletes who crowded into the bleachers of the MU Student Recreation Complex’s basketball courts for the Special Olympics Missouri Summer Games opening ceremony.

Columbia hosted the 2013 games, which were held from May 30 to June 2 at sites around the city. More than 2,500 Missouri athletes with disabilities competed in powerlifting, swimming, basketball, volleyball, bowling, and track and field. The powerlifting, basketball and swimming competitions, along with many of the games’ special social events, took place at MizzouRec.

Mayor Bob McDavid spoke at the opening ceremony and welcomed the athletes to Columbia. Columbia hosted the 2012 games and will host again in 2014 and 2015.

“I’m looking at 2,000 winners right here, right now,” McDavid told the crowd. “We’re so excited to have you back in Columbia. Have a great time, play hard, have fun and see you next year.”

McDavid told the athletes that it takes hard work and focus to win but reminded them to always have fun. Taking the stage just after an energetic performance by the ZOOperstars — giant inflatable animals that riled up the crowd with choreographed dance routines and Silly String fights — McDavid said he could already tell the athletes were remembering to have a good time.

“I have not seen so many broad, happy smiles in the whole last year as I have seen tonight from you ladies and gentlemen,” McDavid said.

Gov. Jay Nixon also gave a brief speech early in the ceremony to announce that the athletes would be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame and promote his 100 Missouri Miles Challenge, which encourages Missourians to stay fit by doing 100 miles of outdoor exercise around the state by the end of the year.

“We are challenging folks to match me and the first lady and walk, bike, roll, run, whatever, 100 miles this summer to stay fit,” Nixon said. Many of the athletes were among the first to sign up for the challenge. In the hour before the ceremony, more than 100 athletes had already committed.

They might have been competing against each other, but the athletes shared a sense of camaraderie at the opening ceremony. Athlete Aarti Nagarkar received a standing ovation after singing the national anthem. The crowd roared as athlete Matthew Cepeda and St. Louis County police officer Mark Koeller lit the games’ Flame of Hope at the end of the night. Koeller was among the 6,500 officers who helped raise more than $2 million for Special Olympics Missouri in 2013.

With the torch illuminating the darkened courts, football coach Gary Pinkel took the stage to declare the games open. The crowd let out yet another cheer.

The Missouri State Summer Games are what many of the athletes work toward throughout the year, said David Watterson, who is the coach and parent of powerlifting athlete Nick Watterson, who won three golds at Saturday’s competition.

“This is the Super Bowl (for them),” David Watterson said. “This is the thing these kids work so hard all year for…, these kids that make it here they have worked out just like as if they were on the Mizzou football team, and this is it.”

While many of the athletes could not participate in school athletic teams, Special Olympics Missouri provides a way for them to compete and show off their hard work, David Watterson said.

“You know, they didn’t get to play for their high school basketball or football teams or that sort of thing,” David Watterson said. “So (Special Olympics Missouri) found a place where they can compete and work hard to reach their maximum potential, whatever that is. It all starts in the heart. They put their heart into this, and they get to show how well they’ve been working.”

As each athlete stepped up to lift at Saturday’s powerlifting competition, fellow athletes, coaches and spectators clapped and cheered each other on, encouraging one another with hugs and high-fives.

“It’s a great time for all the athletes to come together and compete and to meet other athletes that may have similar disabilities,” Eddie Baylock said. “They really just enjoy the whole atmosphere and the excitement of the competition.”

Baylock shared a unique moment with one of his athletes, Paul Meyer. Meyer normally has to lift with the aid of machines to help with this balance. Since the machines are in a separate room, Meyer usually doesn’t have a crowd of spectators to watch him lift. However, for the first time, Meyer lifted in the same venue as his fellow athletes and experienced the cheers of the crowd.

“Today, the machine they wanted to use for the deadweight would not work,” powerlifting announcer David Stock said. “This was the first time he’s lifted in front of a crowd. It was really cool to do this in front of a crowd.”

Stock has announced powerlifting for Special Olympics Missouri for nearly ten years and has gotten to know many of the athletes.

“My favorite part of my job is meeting the athletes and getting to know them,” Stock said. “I have seen these guys and gals lift now for 10 years, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them and what kind of people they are, and that’s enjoyable.”

The games are all about the athletes and showcasing their skill, Stock said.

“These athletes work very hard and do a fantastic job,” Stock said. “It’s all about the athletes. That’s the reason I do it: to try and get them some support.”

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