Local Special Olympians head to nationals next week

Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com From left to right, Victoria Otterstrom, 15, Vanessa Hicks, 27, and Kasie Nebeker, 27, will travel to New Jersey to compete in the 2014 USA Special Olympic Games. They are the only eastern Idaho athletes competing with Team Idaho at the games. Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

Special Olympian Vanessa Hicks, left, holds up the torch with Detention Deputy Jordyn Nebeker during the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics on Saturday, May 17, at Thunder Stadium. Pat Sutphin psutphin@postregister .com

For three eastern Idaho women attending the national 2014 USA Special Olympic Games next week, the games aren’t just about gold medals and athleticism. They’re about fun and, above all else, being social.

Special Olympians Kasie Nebeker, Victoria Otterstrom, and Vanessa Hicks are the sole eastern Idaho athletes on Team Idaho — the Gem State’s representatives at the New Jersey national games. Each athlete won a gold standing in the 2013 State Summer Games to attend, an award which represents a significant amount of hard work and training.

Nebeker, a swimmer from Blackfoot, is looking forward to swimming at the games because she is “super fast.”

“I love it so much — swimming is one of my best things,” she said.

But ranking up there with competing is the chance to have fun at the games. The 27-year-old looks forward to sight-seeing and the chance to see a professional baseball game.

“I want to meet new friends and probably just enjoy the weather and maybe do some shopping,” Hicks said.

Hicks, also 27, is a track and field athlete from Ammon. She has been running for a long time and enjoys it because it gets her active and out of the house.

Both women achieved serious weight loss goals in preparing for the games and working to get healthier. Hicks lost 80 pounds running and doing Zumba. Nebeker lost about 50 pounds, which has helped her control her seizures.

For 15-year-old Victoria, a track athlete from Blackfoot, the games are a chance to make friends and enjoy her favorite pastime.

“I like to run because I’m fast and it reminds me of a cheetah and I really like cheetahs,” she said.

The trio will participate with some 3,500 athletes from across the country in 16 Olympic-style team and individual sports. Contestants are age 8 and older and have an intellectual or severe developmental delay. Team Idaho is sporting 15 athletes total competing in aquatics, track and field, golf, bowling and powerlifting.

Out of hundreds of Special Olympians statewide, only a small number get to nationals. Athletes must place among the top three contestants in a competition, be nominated by their regional team and be evaluated and selected by a state committee. The trip is completely paid for by donations from sponsors statewide.

The athletes will be accompanied by six coaches including Snake River High School coach Gaydena Smith. After 24 years coaching eastern Idaho Special Olympians, she said the work is nothing short of addictive.

“I love watching them grow and try new things and succeed at them — that for me is amazing,” Smith said. “Sometimes these kids have a lot of strikes against them and this is a chance for them to shine and feel less different — I love being a part of that.”

Smith has seen Special Olympics absolutely transform students. She remembers working with a 10-year-old boy who had never swum before and was scared of water.

“When he started he wouldn’t let go of the side of the pool, he was scared and nervous,” Smith said.

But she helped him work through those fears.

“One day when his mother came to pick him up, we told her she needed to see something,” Smith said. “I took him out to the middle of the pool and he swam to his mother. She had tears streaming down her face, because it was something she never thought she would see her son do.”

For the coaches and parents of Special Olympians it isn’t about first second or third, Smith said, but rather the process of self-actualization for the athletes and benefits, which come to parents and families watching their athlete succeed.

Rick Otterstrom, Victoria’s father, said the games help his daughter feel normal.

“It makes her realize that people do care, because sometimes they do run into problems at school with teasing,” he said. “But this lets her fit in, lets her make friends and see other people just like her. Just watching the games it’s easy to see these kids aren’t here as competitors, they are more here as friends.”