Expressions of success, bravery in first day of events
Alex Bender, backstroke queen, sat with her ankles lightly crossed, alternating occasional bites from a ham sandwich and a big, red apple.
Below her, deck-level in the El Pomar Natatorium at Colorado Mesa University, athletes from around the state were arrayed in various stages of warming up: wrapped in a towel at pool’s edge, splashing into the water for a few laps, pausing midstroke to catch the eye of a coach or family member nearby.
Kellie Carpenter, one of Alex’s coaches in Carbondale’s Roaring Fork Mountain Ninos swim team, sat next to the 19-year-old swimmer on the first level of wide concrete steps that serve as seats above the pool.
“Do you want to warm up in the pool?” Kellie asked Alex.
“No, I’m ready!”
And she was, for the third heat of the women’s 25-meter freestyle race. Adjusting her snorkeling mask over her eyes and nose, slipping into the pool, hanging on to the edge, she splashed forward when the buzzer sounded, one of three swimmers heading toward the other end and giving everything to the race.
She came in second, and her brilliant smile at race’s end was as good as gold.
“Let me win,” the Special Olympics motto states, “but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Repeated by several athletes at the conclusion of Saturday morning’s opening ceremonies for the Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games, the words and meaning lingered over the standing long jump and powerlifting, the soccer, the freestyle swimming, the gymnastics floor routines. Every athlete, every event, brave – and joyful! – in the attempt.
“It’s so fun,” Alex said before her race Saturday afternoon, ready in her royal blue racing swimsuit. “I really love the backstroke. I’m the backstroke queen.”
The summer games are for swimming, but it should be noted that she was one of six Colorado athletes who traveled to PyeongChang, South Korea, in late January for the Special Olympics World Winter Games, where she competed in alpine skiing. But that’s a story for another day, because there are races to be swam.
“It’s fun because I have fun with my friends and then I race,” explained Bryan Terry, 35, a Denver athlete and member of the Cherry Creek Aquatic Team.
It was almost like an on-off switch at Saturday’s games, with athletes knowing when to be silly and when to be serious. Delfino Yslas, 10, a student at Rim Rock Elementary School, put his yellow SpongeBob hat on a red balloon he found at the edge of the track and giggled at the sight while he waited for his turn at the softball throw. He offered tidbits about his family (and a note to his sister: You might want to spring excitedly out of bed on Special Olympics day, or else he’s going to tell people you’re a vampire) and wandered in circles.
But when it was his turn to throw, he clutched the electric yellow softball in his right hand and gave it a mighty heave. He threw it farther on his second try and even further on his third, grunting as he released his last throw.
Throughout Stocker Stadium and various venues at Colorado Mesa University, a total of 1,200 athletes, coaches and partners honed their focus to doing their best in the competition. On the second of his three attempts in the powerlifting competition, Aurora athlete Nikia Davenport stood above the weighted bar for several breaths before bending to clutch it and lift.
His mouth was a straight, tight line and his legs trembled as he brought the bar to hip-level, 265 pounds, 15 pounds heavier than his first attempt.
“Great job, Nikia!” someone called from the audience when he released the weight. He grinned in response.
Greeley gymnast Beth Stang offered her own radiant grin after her successful jumping vault. Standing halfway down a long blue runway, in her navy blue and orange leotard that had just enough sparkle, she considered the path before her and the small vault at the end of it.
“You can do it, Beth!” someone called.
She ran straight and jumped onto the vault, kicking her legs apart before sticking her landing on the thick, blue pad. She raised her arms in a beaming victory Y.
“What we want for the athletes is to feel the success, feel the warmth, feel the friendship, feel the support at these summer games,” said Mindy Watrous, president and CEO of Special Olympics Colorado. “These athletes are representing 13,000 athletes across Colorado and we are so proud of them.”
And through events that continue today, the athletes have every reason to feel proud of themselves. After winning a bronze medal in the softball throw Saturday afternoon, Grand Mesa Middle School eighth-grader Robert Bachicha, 13, sat on a bench near the standing long jump pit and held his medal between gentle fingers.
Lifting it over his head, he looked at it glinting in the sunlight and said, “I think this is really nice.”