Practice makes perfect for local Special Olympians

Charlie Nagy swims during the 25-meter race Saturday at El Pomar Natatorium. Nagy earned a silver medal in his heat.

Zach Marolf makes his way through the water during the 25-meter race at El Pomar Natatorium on Saturday during the Colorado Summer Games.

GJFC Thunder goalie Michael Nakano makes a save Saturday at Walker Field during the Thunder’s game at the Colorado Summer Games.

District 51 Unified’s Niki Lester celebrates Saturday after passing to a teammate during the soccer game at Walker Field during the Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games.

If Wednesday’s practice at Orchard Mesa Pool was any indication, Saturday’s races could have gone any of a number of ways.

Oh, sure, where were serious moments Wednesday, when Strive Splash coach Lee Stigen encouraged swimmers down the lanes, but there was also a little recreational splashing (ahem, Zach Marolf) and some cuddles between longtime boyfriend-girlfriend Charlie Nagy and Suzi Northup — enough that Charlie’s mom, Leslie, called from poolside, “Catch and release, Charlie!”

But then came the real deal Saturday, the actual race in the Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games. Charlie, 24, accepted help from a volunteer on each arm as he lowered into his lane at the El Pomar Natatorium. When the buzzer sounded, beginning his 25-meter freestyle race, he headed straight for the other end of the pool, his head staying above the surface, arms windmilling in a steady, metronome cadence.

Not once did he falter, powering all the way down the pool to earn a silver medal in his heat.

And when Zach, 27, lowered his goggles over his eyes and began his own 25-meter freestyle race, the serious athlete replaced the teasing splasher. Halfway down the lane, his breath became ragged gasps, but still he swam.

“Go, Zach!” called his mom, Cecily, from poolside, jumping and clapping. “Go, Zach! Woooo! Good job, buddy! Good job! Go, go, go!”

He touched the wall with a gasp and a grin, his medal earned.

For many local Special Olympics athletes, the practices are year-round, the sports a part of their lives, and maybe the games can sometimes seem unreal or far away. At a May 23 evening soccer practice at Canyon View Park, Niki Lester, 14, was the only athlete with disabilities among the typically developing players — her teammates on the unified team — and so her game might have been a little ... casual.

“Focus, Niki!” called dad Casey from the sideline as she bent at the waist to give a desultory inspection of something on the ground. Coach Sharon Chamberlain encouraged her to try a few shots on goal and practice dribbling with her head up.

Saturday, with the School District 51 Unified team, she dribbled down the field like she’d eventually practiced that Friday night, taking the shot on goal like she’d done again and again. Then, she beamed with joy when it swished past the goalie and into the net.

On the field next to hers, the GJFC Thunder unified team were executing what they’d practiced Wednesday night on the field at First Church of the Nazarene. Longtime goalie Michael Nakano stopped shot after shot, and Emmitt Robinson, a basketball player new to soccer this year, charged down the field with the ball.

The practices had paid off, not just in skill level but in uniting the athletes as a team. Saturday, when Strive Splash swimmer Kimmy Kohlenberg fell and had to be seen by EMTs, her teammates were worried less about the relay race in which she was supposed to participate and more about her. She is one of theirs — their friend, their teammate.

“That’s one of the most important things,” Stigen said. “They love to compete in the games, but the important thing is that they do it together as a team.”


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