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Women to admire

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By Joel Fickel

“One, two, three, four, five,” said 15-year-old Brittany Ware as she took inventory of the glinting gold medals she has accrued over a seven-year involvement with Special Olympics, an athletic organization and competition for individuals with intellectual disabilities. Twelve silver and bronze medals sat nearby waiting to be counted – as did a nest of multicolored ribbons. 

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Brittany first began participating in Special Olympics in 2003, the same year she suffered a broken arm. To her, this was not a setback and it certainly did not stop her from competing in what would become her favorite Olympic event – bowling.

“We were like, ‘She can’t even pick up the ball!’ But she did…and I think she got a medal that year – broken arm and all,” said Brittany’s loving mother, Lynn Ware.

Over the next seven years, she would bring home accolades from the State games in the 50-meter dash and the softball throw as well.

Given the success she has reaped, one might naturally wonder whether Brittany has also been busy developing an excessive amount of pride.

Quite the opposite, according to her mother.

“This year, she was third place. She cheered for (the other players) and she patted them on the back. She was more excited for them than she was herself. She’s gotten sixth place before and was as excited as when she gets first.”

When she’s not training and competing in Special Olympics, Brittany is busy pursuing other athletic penchants such as Tae Kwon Do, swimming and shooting hoops at her home in Mt. Eden.

She is eager to start her freshman year of high school and even more eager to continue playing drums in the high school band as she did in middle school. In addition to loving school, Brittany enjoys an active church life, watching Harry Potter movies, and using a computer.

Yet despite all the things that make this teenage girl’s life typical, the physical adversities with which Brittany has to deal on a day-to-day basis would make such a full and happy life difficult to imagine for most girls her age.   

Brittany was born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that is caused by the pre-birth development of an extra chromosome. This extra chromosome results in intellectual disability as well as certain physical traits.

In March of 2006, she was diagnosed with plastic bronchitis, a rare lung disorder that causes blockage in the bronchial tubes. The condition often wears her out and “gets her down,” her mother said. Sometimes, it requires a trip to Kosair’s Children’s Hospital where she must undergo procedures to open her airways.

Despite how unpleasant this may sound, Ware said the hospital is actually one of Brittany’s favorite places to be.

“None of it scares her. It never has. As soon as we get into the holding room for the procedure, the doctors aren’t ready for me to leave yet but Brittany’s like, ‘Bye, Mom! Go away, Mom. I’m done. You leave,’” said Ware, punctuating her sentence with a delighted laugh. “She’s very independent.”

In March of this year, Brittany was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She now must have insulin shots administered daily. To make matters worse, the diabetes and the plastic bronchitis tend to exacerbate each other and when one flares up, Ware said, the other often does too.

Despite all this, Brittany refuses to give up the activities that she loves.  

“I see all the challenges in her life and she doesn’t dwell on any of them. She enjoys life,” said Brittany’s sister, Sonya Hood.

Hood, a 29-year-old physical therapist, was a teenager when Brittany was born. She said that she initially had a hard time adjusting to the idea of having a little sister with Down syndrome, but that eventually her feelings changed for the better.

“The thing I thought would be the worse thing in my life actually turned out to be the best thing. (She is) the reason I’ve become the person I am and she’s taught me the meaning of love – to love life and to love other people,” Hood said.

“When people say that they’re sorry when they hear about the Down syndrome, I say, ‘No, that’s her blessing!’”

When Brittany starts high school next week, she will meet Marlene Kleinjan, the school librarian – a female athlete some feel is imbued with an indomitable spirit similar to that of Brittany’s, despite a 50-year age gap between the women.

Like Brittany, Kleinjan belongs to a group of dogged athletes that doesn’t often get to feel the warmth of the limelight. She is 65 years old, technically making her a senior citizen. However, some say you would never know this.

On May 22 of this year, she ran the 5k marathon in the 2nd Annual Taylorsville Summer Run by the Lake, an event for which she spent weeks training intently.

At an age when most people are busy settling into retirement and adding up all the reasons why they can’t be physically active, Kleinjan tries hard to avoid a sedentary life.

Her habitual desire to stay active reaches back decades into an “era that was just more active,” as she remembers. 

“We didn’t have a television until I was 11, so all our activities were physical. We were always doing things,” she said, putting emphasis on ‘doing.’

But by the time she was married and had four children, the time left for fitness began dwindling. Increasing age also became a deterrent.

“You get to that age where you think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t run anymore.’”

She took opportunities whenever they presented themselves. When her teenaged son Cory was starting kindergarten, for instance, she began walking up and down the driveway, waiting for the bus to pick him up.

“Eight trips up and down make a mile. So I started doing that every morning.”

Last year, one of her sisters was to be married at the end of July. Her sisters were advocates of Medifast, a popular weight-loss program. By that time, she had gained weight and was determined to lose it before her sister’s wedding day, so as to avoid being pressured into trying Medifast, she said.

In the evenings, she started walking around the perimeter of her house on Highway 44. She used tips from a health magazine to jazz up her walking – inserting squats, crunches, leg-lifts, and push-ups into her nightly routine. She ended up 20 pounds slimmer by wedding time.

Inspired by her newfound physical vitality, she started trying to run to the high school whenever she could.

Although all her children are passionate runners, Kleinjan maintains that Cory, her youngest, was her original inspiration. He is a devoted member of the cross-country team at SCHS. 

“‘Man, that looks like fun. I wish I could do that,’” she would say whenever she watched him running up and down the road.         

When she herself began running regularly, she used Cory as a reference and even imitated his form and technique.

One year later, she tested her ambition by signing up to do the 5k marathon in the Taylorsville Summer Run by the Lake, held annually at Taylorsville Lake State Park.

She pulled a training schedule for beginning 5k runners off the Internet and prepared herself rigorously for the big day.

“I didn’t really care how I came out, I knew I just wanted to see if I could do it. And I did.”

However, Kleinjan said she did care enough to call Josh Seabolt, the TES math teacher who started the marathon, to ask what the final runner’s time was from last year. That runner’s time was one hour and 15 minutes. Kleinjan knew she could do it in 45 minutes. She said all she wanted to do was avoid coming in last, an undertaking from which she emerged victorious despite having to run on a dangerously muddy trail. 

Contrary to what one might expect, Kleinjan did not get the medal for oldest runner. Another gentleman, for whom Kleinjan had a lot of respect, was given the honor. No skin off her back, she attested.

“Someday, I’ll be the oldest runner out there!”

Like Brittany, Kleinjan believes that running and competing are about much more than winning or receiving recognition. As many who know and look up to her agree, vanity is one quality on which the soft-spoken librarian is short.

“I don’t think I’ve done anything special that anyone else couldn’t do if they wanted to,” she said.

Kleinjan’s selflessness has always been part of the richly-woven fabric of her life. She has dedicated much of that life to teaching others – whether spending a year in Guatemala with the Peace Corps spreading health and nutrition education, starting Spanish (a language in which she is fluent) programs in small private Kentucky schools, or imparting her knowledge of technology and library science to students and teachers alike at SCHS. 

Given their outward differences, to talk of Brittany Ware and Marlene Kleinjan in the same breath seems at first like a strange attempt at irony. Taking a closer look, however, one might see that they in fact have many commonalities – apart from the fact that both represent athletic minorities that often escape the attention of sports journalists.

If nothing else, this indisputable fact links these two extraordinary, enterprising women: they are not seen as merely role models for female athletes; they are seen as role models for all.