*This story first appeared in The Budget’s July 18, 2018, Local Edition.
By Stacey Carmany
The team spirit of the Tuscarawas County Rockets is soaring after a strong showing in this year’s state and national Special Olympic competitions.
In March, about 70 local athletes began training for summer sports including bocce, track & field and bowling in the hopes of qualifying for the 2018 Ohio Summer Special Olympic Games.
“It’s the biggest event in Ohio,” explained Richelle Lefler, local coordinator for Tuscarawas County. “It’s over 2,600 athletes from across the state.”
Of those individuals, 29 advanced to compete in the state- level competition and Shane York went straight to the USA Games.
During this year’s Summer Games, held June 22-24 on the campus of The Ohio State University in Columbus, Rockets qualifiers demonstrated their heart and athleticism and secured several gold, silver, and bronze medals and a number of ribbons for their efforts.
In individual bowling, gold medals were secured by Alex Adkins, Wendy Garver, Miranda Milburn and Lonnie Thornton; silver by Nathanial Wells; bronze by Diana DeMonte; and Abby Cool took home a fourth-place ribbon.
In track and field events, three Rockets competitors secured gold medals including Kaylee Arthurs in the softball throw, Shane Johnson in the mini-javelin, and Logan Wise in the pentathlon.
Silver medals were awarded to Kaylee Arthurs, Craig Gordon and Kershel Zehnder in the 100- meter dash; Samantha Mastroine in the 400-meter dash; Rachel Russell in the mini javelin; and the team of Craig Gordon, Steve Hazelip, Shane Johnson and Kershel Zehnder in the 4×100-meter Relay.
Bronze winners included Kristina Chambers in the 100- meter dash; Steve Hazelip in the shot put and the 100-meter dash; the team of Kaylee Arthurs, Kristina Chambers, Samantha Mastroine and Rachel Russell in the 4×100-meter relay; and Jehred Bennett, Conner DiGen- ova, Keilan Patterson and Dalton Sprowl in the 4×100-meter Unified Relay.
Lefler explained that unified events are those that pair Special Olympic athletes with volunteer athletes from the community. “That’s kind of the direction Special Olympics is moving [to- ward], and ‘choose to include’ is the big lingo, not just including people with disabilities in the typical world but also people without disabilities into the world of people with disabilities. It’s a two-way street.”
In addition to the Unified Relay team, The Rockets also had two Unified Bocce teams competing in this year’s Summer Games. The Unified Women’s team of Chelsea Lefler and Angelica Mendoza secured a gold medal, and the Unified Men’s team of Easton Dillon and Patrick Dillon took home the bronze.
In Traditional Bowling, the team of Eric Lingo and Rusty Parsons earned the gold medal in the men’s division, and the team of Ginger Stalcup and Sammy Thornton brought home a bronze in the Women’s.
This year’s ribbon winners were: Kristina Chambers, Conner DiGenova, Craig Gordon and Samantha Mastroine, 4th, softball throw; Jehred Bennett, 5th, softball throw and 100m dash; Shane Johnson, 6th, 100-meter dash; Matthew Medley, 4th, pentathlon; Rachel Russell, 5th, 200- meter dash; and Kershel Zehnder, 4th, mini javelin.
For the individuals participating, the Summer Games provides an opportunity to achieve goals and build self-confidence, according to Lefler. “It’s fun seeing them feel so accomplished and proud of themselves,” she shared.
She added that the weekend-long event also gives the athletes a chance to experience a sense of normalcy. “When they’re at summer games, they get to room with each other and experience independence and experience just that constant camaraderie of being with your teammates,” she said.
Steve Hazelip shared that participating in events like the Summer Games helps keep him active and also gives him the chance to spend quality time with his Rockets family.
For many of the athletes, participating in competitive sports has also helped them achieve milestones in their personal development. It has helped Hazelip learn to control his anger and Miranda Milburn find her voice.
In addition to the individuals who competed in this year’s State Games, the Rockets also had one athlete qualify for the Special Olympics International’s USA Games based on his performance last year.
Earlier this month, Shane York took an all-expenses-paid, five-day trip to Seattle, Washington, to compete in the bocce events at this year’s USA Games.
Lefler noted that the trip marked the first time since 2000 that an individual Special Olympics athlete from Tuscarawas County has made it to such a high level of competition. York returned home to a front yard decorated by his Rockets teammates with signs and balloons and wearing a gold medal he earned in the Doubles Bocce competition.
York thanked his Rockets family for their encouragement and support, specifically Lefler, who he refers to as his second mom, and her daughter Chelsea, his good friend and teammate. He also offered two words of advice to other aspiring athletes: work hard.
In addition to the gold medal, York also secured ribbons for fourth place in the team event and sixth-place in the singles competition. He also had an opportunity to meet a few of his idols including WWE Superstars Mark Henry and Stephanie McMahon.
The success of the local athletes in this year’s state and national summer games comes on the heels of another huge victory for the Rockets. In March, the team took home the gold medal in Division IV at the State Special Olympics Basketball Championship.
“Our team spirit is growing,” Lefler shared. “Unity is at an all-time high. These athletes are just hungry to build the team mindset. One of the things we say a lot is ‘teamwork makes the dream work,’ and we say that in every sport. At the end of the day, we’re a Rockets family.
The Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, providing year-round training and competitions to athletes in 172 countries at no cost to participants.
To make these opportunities possible for Tuscarawas County athletes, the local chapter relies on the generosity of its community partners including the Tuscarawas County Board of Developmental Disabilities, Indian Valley Local Schools, Wabash Lanes, Starlight School, New Philadelphia City Schools, the Dover Moose and the Rainbow Connection.
Fundraisers are also held throughout the year to pay for needed items and practice sites. Volunteers are always needed to assist with fundraising events, and there is also a need for local athletes to serve as partners and coaches.
For more information about the program or to inquire about volunteer and sponsorship opportunities, call the Tuscarawas County Board of DD at 330-308-7173 or email Local Coordinator Richelle Lefler at tuscarawascountyspecialolympic@ gmail.com.