Special Olympian 'will never forget' nationals

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By Joel Fickel

“Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

So goes the much-honored oath of Special Olympics, an organization for athletes with intellectual disabilities that holds competitions in 181 countries.

“That’s my favorite quote,” said 17-year-old Zachary Newton, who spent last week in Lincoln, Nebraska representing Kentucky, as well as Taylorsville, in the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games which brought together over 3,000 athletes, 2,000 coaches, and 8,000 volunteers from 33 states.

Zachary, a hearing-impaired student at Bethlehem High School in Bardstown, was the second youngest of the 13 players comprising the Pitt Academy Kodiaks softball team, which was given the opportunity to compete against other 2A Division teams from around the country.

A fundamental characteristic that distinguishes Special Olympics from other sports organizations and competitions is the implementation of “divisioning.” Players and teams are divided into four groups according to performance quality so that athletes compete with other athletes of similar ability in equitable divisions.

The Kodiaks were the 2A Division Champions at the 2009 State Softball Tournament. State winners in divisions one through four were then put into a hat from which a representative team was drawn to compete in the 2010 National Games. By the luck of the draw, the Kodiaks got the opportunity of which they had been dreaming.

“It really was the chance of a lifetime for the players,” said Lynn Newton, Zachary’s mother and assistant coach of the Kodiaks. Newton has been deeply involved with Special Olympics for 12 years and has coached softball with Pitt Academy for six. This was her first national coaching experience.

“It gave them a new level of competition and an experience they’ll never forget.”

Because Special Olympics gets no state funding, the $1,500 needed for each team player was raised through candy bar sales, a spaghetti supper, a pancake breakfast, candle sales, and Gordon Food Service, among other events.

In all, the Kodiaks competed in eight matches over the busy week – three preliminary matches, two seeding matches, and two final matches. They emerged victoriously once, beating Florida by six points in their second seeding match and getting hopes up about the bronze medal. However, Florida scored an upset against the Kodiaks the following day, giving them a fourth place finish.

“It was a long, emotional, exhausting week,” said assistant coach Newton.

“He was disappointed that the team lost,” conceded John Newton, Zachary’s father, who drove out to see the games with his elder son, Travis, and give moral support to Zachary and Lynn. “He is very competitive…but not everyone can win. There’s got to be a loser.”

Despite their temporarily disheartening losses, Zachary maintained that his team “did really good.”

A voracious athlete, Zachary has been involved with Special Olympics since he was 11 and in addition to softball, he regularly competes in basketball, bowling and soccer.

“It’s huge for me,” he said, referring to Special Olympics and sports in general.

The Newton family wouldn’t have time to dwell on their losses at the National Games even if they wanted to. They are already busy preparing for Incarnation Church’s 2010 Special Olympics softball tournament, which will take place this coming Saturday in Louisville.  

Assistant coach Newton said she was astounded by the talent and ability the athletes exhibited at the National Games. For her, the week reinforced the fact that just because an athlete has an intellectual disability doesn’t mean their athletic ability or their will to win should be even slightly underestimated.

“They’re so much like us,” she said. “They love to compete and the awards mean so much to them.”

Not all of Team Kentucky returned home sans gold. The women’s basketball team scored an exciting win against Minnesota towards the close of the week, making them winners in their division. The team has won eight games since 2007, the year they took home gold from the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Shanghai, China.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, younger sister of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, founded Special Olympics in 1968 with the hope that “one million of the world’s intellectually challenged would someday compete athletically,” states eunicekennedyshriver.org. Today, over three million athletes train year-round for competitions worldwide. Shriver passed away a year ago August 11.