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Juneau's Olympic champion

Special Olympics By the Numbers

Posted: Friday, July 14, 2006

The Athletes' Creed of the Special Olympics reads, "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

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In a sports world where bad behavior by professional athletes seems to be appearing more frequently in the nightly highlights, it's easy to forget that at its essence, athletics are about friendly competition and striving to excel.

Juneau's Luis Hernandez knows what it means to excel both on and off the field.

The 22-year-old recently returned from the Special Olympics USA National Games, July 2-7 in Ames, Iowa. As the only Southeast Alaska athlete among the nearly 3,000 people competing, Hernandez won gold in the 4-kilogram shot put and bronze in the 200-meter dash.

More importantly, however, Hernandez exhibited an attitude worth of a champion.

"It's just a game out there," said Hernandez, who has mild mental retardation. "It's not only for people who are winning or losing. It's just a game for Special Olympics, the national games."

2,200,000

The approximate number of people world-wide who compete in different Special Olympics activities.

6

The number of athletes selected to represent Alaska in the first-annual Special Olympics USA National Games

820

The number of athletes who participated in the Morocco Special Olympics.

1968

The year of the first International Special Olympics Games, held at Soldier Field in Chicago.

37

The number of years Alaska has held the state summer Special Olympics.

5,140

The distance in centimeters of Luis Hernandez' gold-medal winning throw in the 4-kilogram shot put.

118

The number of different events at the Special Olympics USA National Games in Ames, Iowa.

For more on hernandez' performances at the Special Olympics USA National Games, check out www.2006nationalgames.org or www.specialolympics.org.

While displaying the camaraderie and friendliness all Olympic games strive to represent, Hernandez did admit to being nervous while competing in the shot put.

According to one of his coaches in town, Diana Higgs, Hernandez started throwing the shot put in March. Despite being a relative rookie, Hernandez worked hard to perfect his technique in the shot put.

Higgs, who shares coaching duties with her husband, Mark, said the 22-year-old works hard to perfect his technique.

"Mike showed him three different ways to throw it," Higgs said. "He chose the hardest one and that's the one he perfected."

Hernandez qualified for the National Games with gold medal performances in the Alaska Special Olympics on June 9-11 in Anchorage.

Following the event, Hernandez's name was one of six chosen to represent the state in Iowa. At the National Games, the athletes are divided into different divisions based on age, gender and ability.

In Iowa, Hernandez shaved 7.32 seconds off his preliminary time in the 200-meter dash to take bronze with a time of 47.79.

In the shot put, Hernandez fired the shot put 5.14 meters on his final attempt to capture gold.

"I was nervous," Hernandez said of competing. "You just ignore it and keep on running and keep on doing the shot put."

While Hernandez may be a star on the athletic field, he truly shines in the community by taking the time to teach others.

In addition to his regular job as a recycling aid with Waste Management, he also works as a volunteer teacher at the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Head Start program.

"He's always been real nurturing and caring like that," Higgs said.

In addition to teach, Hernandez volunteers with Outdoors Recreation Community Access, which helps disabled people enjoy hikes, trips and other outdoors activities.

"In my eyes, I've always just seen him as a born leader," said Jessye Schmitz, Hernandez' case manager at REACH. "He like to have that position. He is respected. The kids that he works with at Tlingit-Haida adore him."

Hernandez, a recent graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School, said he enjoys teaching children and helping others.

He's also thinking about becoming an assistant coach himself.

"I'm always there to help them," he said. "To show them the ropes and hopefully they can be teachers themselves."

• Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at sports@juneauempire.com



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