Special Olympians tune up

Local athletes getting ready for bowling tournament in Anchorage

Posted: Monday, October 18, 2004

Carl Behnert has Down Syndrome, and although he can't do math as quickly as some, he may be better than many in sports.

Wearing a T-shirt that read "giving disability a possibility" and a Special Olympics gold medal for the 50-meter dash, Behnert knocked down pins with an easy swing Sunday at Channel Bowl.

"I like bowling," said Behnert, 25. "I just need to change into a shirt and bowling shoes."

For the past seven weeks, Behnert and his teammates have been practicing for a local Special Olympics tournament, Oct. 30 and Oct. 31. The top eight athletes will qualify for the state tournament in Anchorage.

Special Olympics was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968.

In June 1963, Shriver, then director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, started a summer camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities at her home in Maryland. She wanted to encourage them to participate in a variety of sports and physical activities.

From that camp came the concept of Special Olympics, which now serves more than 1 million people with intellectual disabilities in about 200 programs in 150 countries.

Brenda Carlson, director of Juneau's team said, "The purpose of athletic training is to give them skills that may come in handy in their lives, like getting along with their peers, boosting their self-esteem and having fun."

Juneau has about 50 athletes. They train and compete year-round. In summer, they play basketball and track and field and swim. They bowl in fall. In winter, they downhill ski, snowshoe and snowboard.

Juneau's team has won many gold medals. Michelle Boster won a state track and field championship in Anchorage and a world championship in Ireland in 2003. Niall Johnson won a gold medal for snowboarding.

Nancy Walsh, 51, said her son, Nathan, has become more active since he started participating in Special Olympics in 1985.

"Nathan is not an outgoing person," Nancy said. "The sports events make him go out."

Families also benefit from the games.

Matt Jones, a single father of two mentally challenged children, finds comfort in meeting with other families.

"The kids need to have peers and have a sense of belonging," Jones, 41, said. "I also need a sense of belonging."

Local businesses and volunteers support the athletes in all possible ways.

Dutch Knight, whose family owns Channel Bowl, opens the bowling alley for the athletes to practice Sunday morning. Knight runs around to clear the alleys and helps the bowling coach, Lee Lewis. Bill Burt, who taught many of the athletes when he was an instructional assistant at middle and high schools, spends his free time coaching and encouraging the athletes.

Despite the support, the Juneau team has been struggling financially.

"Sometimes the families have to pay out of their pockets," said Marla Adams, the team's fund-raising chair. "Our athletes are not supposed to pay any money to participate."

The athletes don't understand much about the team's financial situation. They focus on the games. They cheered when they or their teammates had a strike. They pouted, slumped and shook their head when their ball slid into a gutter.

"It's a great game and a great way to socialize with other people," said athlete Robert Frick. His best score is 203.

• Residents who want to volunteer or participate can call 364-9997 for more information about Juneau's Special Olympics team.

• I-Chun Che can be reached at ichun.che@juneauempire.com.

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