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Athletes prepare for a Special moment

North Shore athletes headed to Nebraska for national games

July 12, 2010

Seven athletes from the Milwaukee suburbs - including three from the North Shore - will join dozens of other participants from around the state as they represent Wisconsin in the second-ever Special Olympics U.S.A. National Games in Nebraska next week.

In all, 63 athletes of varying ages and cognitive disabilities from the state will compete in events such as basketball, soccer, golfing, rhythmic gymnastics and other events during the games, which will be held in Lincoln from July 18 to 23.

For local athletes, the games are about much more than just competition - they're about spending time with and making new friends, learning new skills, having fun and raising awareness of those with disabilities.

Bring out the best

"When I joined (Special Olympics), I was an immature girl who cried all the time, was shy and afraid of everyone, had no friends, expect for my family, and no interest in any sport," said 36-year-old swimmer Christine Cherne of Brown Deer.

"Now, I can proudly say I have participated in soccer, learned how to sail a 24-foot sailboat … and became good friends with many athletes - not only during the season of the sport, but forever," she added.

And for 32-year-old tennis player Michelle Buchanan, also of Brown Deer, sports and participating in the games helped her learn what it is to be a team player.

"(It) made me be a good sport," she said, adding that she also enjoys "the opportunity to travel with friends."

Training is key

Training and practice are also important aspects of the Special Olympics and are keys to helping the athletes grow and improve.

For instance, Bayside's bocce team captain, Andrew Dalin, 33, has noticed a significant increase in skill over the 15 years he has played in the games.

"My ball-handling skills and eye-tracking improved so much (that I now am the) point guard for my team," he said, adding that through the games he has "learned to be a team player and a leader."

Some of the athletes also feel a strong sense of state pride.

Rebecca Stelpflug, a 19-year-old from Menomonee Falls, who was born with cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities, has participated in the state's Special Olympics games for 10 years. She promises to "do her best for Special Olympics Wisconsin" at this year's national games.

Learning, fun for all

Whether they are competing on the state, national or world levels, athletes and their families gain a lot from the events, said Kelly Kloepping, vice president of communications with Special Olympics Wisconsin.

"(I've seen) families transformed by Special Olympics simply because we open up a new world for a child or adult to participate with others who often have similar abilities," she said. "We allow our athletes to see their abilities, not their disabilities."

Requirements for participating in Special Olympics are that the athlete must be at least 8 years old and have a cognitive disability. Some also have physical disabilities.

Kloepping added that everyone can learn something from attending the games, not just those with disabilities.

"You will never see better sportsmanship, as the athletes try their very hardest for that gold," she said. "But you'd never see anything but a smile at the awards ceremony no matter how they did."

The Wisconsin delegation will join almost 3,000 other athletes from around the country at this year's games.

For more information about the national games and the statewide Special Olympics program, visit specialolympicswisconsin.org.

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