These extraordinary athletes are entering the stretch run in their training for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, which kicks off on July 1 in Seattle.

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The 2018 Special Olympics USA Games are coming to Seattle, bringing more than 4,000 athletes and coaches, 10,000 volunteers, 10,000 family members and 70,000 spectators to the six-day event, which kicks off with an opening ceremony July 1 at Husky Stadium.

Here are four snapshots of extraordinary athletes on the brink of history — for some of them, the threshold of a lifetime dream.

Paddleboarder Mariah Gilbert

Mariah Gilbert, who’ll compete on standing paddleboard, has a brand-new tattoo that says, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Mariah Gilbert, who’ll compete on standing paddleboard, has a brand-new tattoo that says, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

That’s the athlete oath of the Special Olympics, and a brand-new tattoo on Mariah Gilbert’s left arm.

Mariah, 19, decided to get the tattoo on May 3 (her mom also got one) because it reflects the change in her outlook since she got involved in Special Olympics.

“I used to come home from school and just sit in my room, not having any friends,” she says. “Special Olympics changed my life.”

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Mariah is one of five members of Team Washington’s standup paddleboard crew, which will compete on Angle Lake in SeaTac along with teams from South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas in this year’s Special Olympics USA Games. This is the first year the sport is included in the national event.

“Paddlesports have exploded onto the scene of popularity in the Pacific Northwest,” says Brenda Devine, who started the state’s first team in Cheney and now coaches Mariah’s team. “There are quite a lot of benefits physically, mentally and emotionally for everyone, but particularly for an extra challenged group.”

Mariah says her involvement in the sport had an unusual beginning.

“I was overthinking it. It’s in the summer and I didn’t want to be stuck indoors,” she says.  “So I’d rather fall off a board and be cooled off.”

Bocce player Michelle Andersen

For Special Olympics athlete Michelle Andersen, the Seattle games will be “an event like no other I have competed in.”

That’s because after 30 years as a competitive swimmer, the 45-year-old Andersen has taken up a new sport — bocce, which will be played at the University of Washington’s Dempsey Indoor Center.

Andersen, who works full time at a Ballard day-care center, says she was intrigued as soon as she saw bocce, an ancient game combining elements of lawn bowling and shuffleboard.

Jeremy Wall (black shirt) trains with teammate Chris Linell at Green Lake Park.
Jeremy Wall (black shirt) trains with teammate Chris Linell at Green Lake Park.

“I had no idea what bocce was but it sparked my interest,” she says. “I joined the Capitol Hill Bocce Team and after three seasons and getting a gold medal in state, here I am at USA Games. I am excited to be able to play in such a big event. So many people will be able to see how people with disabilities can compete in sports just like everyone else. I am counting the days!”

Runner and jumper Jeremy Wall

For Jeremy Wall, a track-and-field athlete from Bothell, everything’s been leading up to this moment.

When Jeremy, 38, takes the field at Husky Outdoor Track for the 1,500-meter run, the 400-meter run and the running long jump, it will be the culmination of a seemingly never-ending regimen of morning runs in Bothell and regular nights at Gold’s Gym.

As the games draw near, guided by his coaches Ed and Peggy Haywood, Jeremy has extended his running routine to more than 20 miles a week, including a 10-mile run on Sundays. He juggles his arduous fitness schedule with his work at PCC Community Markets, where he is a courtesy clerk.

In addition to his track-and-field events, Jeremy will also be carrying the torch in the Law Enforcement Torch Run Final Leg in the week leading up to opening ceremony July 1.

“This is the dream of my life,” he says.

Powerlifter Mike Van Zee

Mike Van Zee, a 42-year-old iron pumper from Spokane, is unequivocal about his prospects in the Special Olympics USA Games.

He’s expecting gold.

Van Zee, who has already medaled in sports including basketball, bowling and downhill skiing, now has his sights set on bench-pressing 275 pounds in the 2018 powerlifting competition, which will unfold at Meaney Hall for the Performing Arts.

He says the 275 pounds is always on his mind, whether he’s training at the YMCA, working his job at Taco Time or doing repetitions with the barbells he keeps in his room. In addition to the bench press, Van Zee will also compete in the dead lift and the squat.

Powerlifter Mike Van Zee works with his coach, Pat Gray.
Powerlifter Mike Van Zee works with his coach, Pat Gray.

Van Zee is quick to credit his coach, Pat Gray, a longtime powerlifting coach with the Spokane Parks & Recreation Department.

In the weeks leading up to the Games, Gray is ramping up the three-person squad’s practice regimen, with training sessions of up to two hours, three days a week.

Apart from teaching the mechanics and techniques of the sport, much of Gray’s coaching is about mental preparation, discipline and steady progress toward well-defined goals. But he says the biggest lesson he can impart to the athletes is about self-confidence and self-image.

“All their lives, everybody tells them what they can’t do — you can’t do this, you can’t do that — but we focus on what they can do if they set goals and work toward them,” he says.  “There is no fast road. But if they learn to set goals they can do anything.”

The 2018 Special Olympics USA Games will showcase the abilities of athletes with intellectual disabilities, promote the ideals of acceptance and inclusion through sport, and celebrate the transformative power of Special Olympics.