Diving right in

Special Olympians ready to compete in Craig

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Jaimee Sexton is already nervous.

The aquatic competitions at the Special Olympics Colorado-Western Area Summer Games begin Saturday in Craig, and this year's competition will be the South Routt swimmer's first attempt at such an event.

On Thursday, Sexton, 19, and South Routt teammates Rhianna Kresl, 17, Marisa Lombardi, 15, and Clinton Koler, 15, practiced their events and turns in the lap pool at the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Center, while coach Julie Hoff ran from one side of the pool to the other yelling instructions.

Hoff and co-coach Jeanie Lombardi can't be in the pool to help the swimmers Saturday, so Thursday the four athletes had to do everything on their own. The smiles indicated the quartet was ready for competition -- and all the other social activities that go along with the Special Olympics.

"I've been in the water since I was 5," Kresl said. "What the heck, at least it involves the water."

Saturday, 110 athletes and their families, friends and coaches will gather at the Moffat County High School to take part in either swimming, track and field or powerlifting. Marisa Lombardi has previous Special Olympics experience after winning a giant slalom and slalom race in Glenwood Springs this winter. Lombardi hopes she and her teammates will create as many good memories Saturday as she created in Glenwood.

"We put my daughter in the winter (Special Olympics), and she had fun," said Jeanie Lombardi, a part-time resource teacher at Soroco High School. "We kind of wanted to get some of the other kids involved, and swimming is right down their alley."

All four have previous swimming experience at various levels. Koler is a relative newcomer to the sport, but it has become his favorite, he said.

The four will compete in freestyle, backstroke or both. They also will team up to form a relay.

But the competitions are just a small part of the Special Olympics experience in Moffat County. The festivities kick off today with games, dinner and a dance.

On Saturday, the athletes and coaches are treated to a breakfast before the competitions begin. Opening ceremonies are at 9 a.m., and the awards ceremony follows the competitions and lunch.

While this is the first year South Routt has fielded a team for the regional competition, Steamboat has been a longtime participant in the Special Olympics. So much so, counselor Ginny Cannon said, that the athletes begin asking her questions about registering during the winter.

Joe Arnold has been competing in the Special Olympics for roughly a decade, Cannon said, and on Saturday, he is registered in four track and field events, including the 400-meter relay that he will run with Kelly Chambers, Keith Fortune and Myles Barber.

Eighteen Horizons clients are slated to take part in Saturday's events. Of those 18, all but one is in track and field.

Bruce Rule, a longtime wrestling fan, is going to give powerlifting a try. In preparation for the competition, he has been working extensively at the Health and Rec Center with personal trainer Chris Voyvodick.

The Special Olympics couldn't be a success without the help of volunteers like Voyvodick. More than 50 volunteers are working at the Craig competition, not including the coaches others who helped the athletes train.

Cannon has been taking a team from Horizons to the Special Olympics for six years. She said it's a rewarding and unique experience.

"It's how much everyone there appreciates every single effort," she said. "Family and friends cheer. The competitors cheer. There's a lot of support, appreciation and value in how hard they work. It's a shared pride with everyone."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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