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Smiles and medals all around

Sports: SCV Special Olympians excel in regional competition meet

Posted: May 15, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: May 15, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Left to right, Santa Clarita Special Olympians Rebecca Lopez, 17, Megan Charles, 15, and Ally Hill, 17, celebrate the medals they won in the Level 2 Special Olympics age 12-15 bracket. The Santa Clarita Special Olympics gymnastics team is now in its third year of training at Gymnastics Unlimited. Next up for the Santa Clarita squad will be the ...

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The thrill of competition and the camaraderie of their teammates brought many smiles to the Special Olympics athletes who competed in a regional rhythmic gymnastics competition held April 30 at Gymnastics Unlimited in Valencia.
The spectators got a few smiles out of it, too.

“You can walk in there feeling depressed and sorry for yourself, and you walk out of there on a natural high,” said Lynne Reed, whose 17-year-old daughter, Karen, was one of 18 team members representing Santa Clarita Special Olympics in the meet that also featured teams from Orange County and Long Beach.

Special Olympics is a volunteer-based, non-profit organization that provides year-round sports training and competition in various Olympic-style sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The local organization has approximately 500 athletes of all ages enrolled in a variety of sports programs.  The Santa Clarita Special Olympians will next compete in the Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games at California State University, Long Beach on June 12.

The Santa Clarita Special Olympics athletes included the Special Olympics Sharks, who train at Gymnastics Unlimited, and also team members who live at LARC Ranch in Saugus. Each athlete performed routines in four out of five disciplines: ball, rope, hoop, ribbon and clubs.

Reed said being a member of the Special Olympics Gymnastics team has been great for her daughter. “It’s been wonderful. It has brought her a lot out of the shell she was in,” Reed said of her daughter, who has cerebral palsy. “When they practice every week they greet each other and hug like they haven’t seen each other for 10 years or something. It’s just awesome.”

Reed said the nonprofit Special Olympics deserves community support. “Without Special Olympics a lot of these kids would not be having the socialization they have. This is their sport, this is their thing they do that they enjoy.”

Santa Clarita Mayor Marsha McLean, who attended to officially declare the meet open, a la the Olympics, said gymnastics is always one of her favorite Olympic events, and the spirit of competition will help the participants grow, develop and learn.

“These lessons later become building blocks of success in life,” she told the participants and nearly 75 spectators.

Lisa Eichman, co-owner of Gymnastics Unlimited and head coach of the Special Olympics gymnastics team, said she was extremely proud of the Special Olympians, who brought home numerous medals in their respective age brackets. She also praised the coaches, including Courtney Starks, Brenna Yagada, Nicole Zito and Nicole Weitzmann.

“We couldn’t have done it without the volunteer coaches,” Eichman said. “During Special Olympics competition, the athletes take a lot of cues in their routines from their coaches. Our coaches built a strong rapport with the team, and it paid off in their performances.”

She was also grateful for the support of the Pikes, the Gymnastics Unlimited competitive youth gymnastics team, who turned out in uniform and cheered for the competitors.

Eichman said she’s seen a great deal of progress in the performances by the Special Olympics gymnastics team, now in its third year of training at Gymnastics Unlimited.  “It is so rewarding,” Eichman said. “We’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress and built so many terrific relationships in the past three years.”

Wendy Lorton, regional sports manager for the Special Olympics Santa Clarita & Tri-Valley Regions, said she was proud of the poise the competitors displayed while performing in front of the crowd.

“I was inspired by the athletes’ courage to perform their routines in front of the judges and a gym full of spectators,” Lorton said. “What I witnessed was each athlete had such confidence. They knew their routines and were proud to get onto the floor and perform.”

 The athletes ranged widely in age, Lorton said, from children all the way up to competitor Virginia Fritsch, 77.

The youngest competitor was Elise Meissner, 9, who received a great deal of encouragement from the Pikes team members, many of whom are about the same age as Elise and exchanged high fives with her after she finished a routine. “I really liked getting gold medals,” she said. “I got one gold, two silver and two bronze.”

Her mother, Sara Meissner, said she went into the meet with some trepidation because it was her autistic daughter’s first time performing in front of a crowd.

“She had a wonderful time,” Meissner said. “Having Special Olympics allows her to learn at her own pace. She loves it. Every week she looks forward to going, and for the older girls in the group, it’s like Elise is their little sister. It’s like a family environment. In this sport, everyone is accepted.”

But still, there was that first-timer’s nervousness.

“This was our first meet so we didn’t know what to expect,” Meissner said. “I was really nervous, and Elise was so excited, watching everyone perform. And it was great seeing everyone, from wheelchairs to our most advanced students. No matter what you could do, everyone was encouraged and everyone had a smile on their face.”

Information about Special Olympics Southern California is available by visiting www.sosc.org. Information about Gymnastics Unlimited is available by calling (661) 257-2GYM or visiting the gym’s website, www.gymnasticsultd.com. The gym’s facilities include a recreational gymnastics academy at 28373 Constellation Road, Valencia, and an exclusive training center on Rye Canyon Road for the competitive girls gymnastics team, the Pikes.

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