This year’s State Summer Games are going to be pretty epic. There will be 1,377 athletes, over 1,000 coaches and volunteers, and countless families and supporters descending on the UW-Stevens Point campus for SOWI’s largest annual sports event from June 8-10.
Some attendees will be seasoned vets for whom this has become an annual summer tradition. For others, this is all brand new and very exciting. Joey Leopold and his family fall in the latter camp.
After beginning his involvement with SOWI just last summer with bocce, 18-year-old Joey quickly made the jump to athletics. Now, less than a year after joining Agency 6-04 in Baraboo, he is already participating in his first State tournament. He’ll be competing in the 400-meter dash, mini javelin and shot put events.
This is made all the more remarkable considering his history. Joey has agenesis of the corpus callosum, which causes cognitive delay. After severe medical complications as a toddler, doctors told his parents that he would likely never walk again.
Yet, here he was a few weeks ago, placing first in the 400-meter dash at the Hometown Games in Oregon, surprising the doctors – and his parents – with every stride.
“Every milestone is a victory and celebration. Joey gives his all in everything he sets out to do and continues to astound and amaze us all,” Joey’s mother Kathy said.
For a young man who wasn’t supposed to have any mobility, Joey really loves to run. Shocked by his showing at the Oregon Hometown Games, Joey’s parents can’t wait to see what happens in Stevens Point.
“He had a fantastic time (at the Hometown Games) and really showed us a different side of him. Of course that side made me shed many, many tears – and I suspect that will happen once again at the State Games,” Kathy said.
Another person you might bump into at the Summer Games this year who falls into the former camp of now being a seasoned vet at the Games is Chad Oeftger, Agency Manager for Neenah High School and coach to three Unified relay teams participating in the State Summer Games this year.
Chad has been attending the Summer Games for five years now as Neenah’s Agency Manager and coach. This will be the second year with teams in the Unified competition. Unified competition is very near and dear to Chad. He has been participating himself in Unified action since the mid-90’s when he started playing on a Unified basketball team in Madison. When he was hired as a special education teacher at Neenah High in 2006, it made sense that he would move Neenah in the direction of Unified Champion Schools, which he helped Neenah become in 2014.
“We have an after-school program called the ‘Shining Stars’ that meets two times a month where students with and without disabilities get together and play games, do crafts and talk about how to make Neenah High School a more inclusive place,” Chad said.
One of the many wonderful things to come out of Shining Stars is Neenah’s robust Unified Sports program. This year, six athletes and six partners will represent Neenah in Unified 4 x 100 relay, matching the number of teams and participants from last year, which was a truly memorable year for Chad.
“I was so impressed by the partners’ commitment to travel to Stevens Point (last year) for just a 15 – 20 second run with our athletes. I knew then that run was not as important as making lifelong friends between the athletes and partners and being part of a team,” Chad said.
It’s certainly more than just the run that is getting the Neenah partners excited for the Summer Games.
“The thing that I’m most looking forward to is seeing Chris’s beaming face, and seeing how proud he will be no matter how he will perform,” partner Jaden Mikoulinskii said of her relay teammate, athlete Chris Jones.
Over the course of the two days of competition, there will be no shortage of pride throughout the UW-Stevens Point campus. The pride may come from coaches like Chad, who get to witness their teams and athletes compete at the highest level in the state in sports they love. Or it could come from Unified partners like Jaden, who get to smile along with their friends and teammates like Chris as they take in this joyful and unforgettable experience.
Or the pride could come from athletes like Joey Leopold, who get to see the culmination of their hard work as they compete with the best Special Olympics athletes from across Wisconsin, often defying expectations at every step along the way.
On that, Joey has some succinct words of advice: “Never give up trying.”