It's Much More Than Sports for This Athlete…
A thin young woman stands perched on the diving board and takes a deep breath, letting the chlorinated air flood her lungs. The 20-year-old girl peers down at her reflection in the rippled pool, barely recognizing the gold medalist who stares confidently back at her. As she gives the crowd a triumphant wave, it dawns on her that this is her last State competition before the World Games in Greece. Her brown eyes dart back and forth in the sea of cheering fans until she catches her mother’s eyes and smiles, grateful for the woman who introduced her to the Special Olympics family.
Becca Stelpflug calls the quaint suburban town of Menomonee Falls her hometown, but 20 years ago she was living a world away in an orphanage in Piura, Peru. She was one of nearly 100 orphans living at the government institution when a woman from Wisconsin adopted her. Rita Stelflug, a self-employed professional, had previously adopted a Peruvian child, Ashley, who had cognitive disabilities and couldn’t wait to introduce Becca to her older sister.
"She had a terrific head of long, dark, thick hair," remembered Rita. "I was overwhelmed at what a beautiful baby she was."
But after months of preschool, teachers noticed warning signs that something wasn’t quite right with Becca as well. Unlike her classmates, she wasn’t crawling, rolling over, or achieving any of the development milestones that other children her age had accomplished. A conversation with Becca’s pediatrician confirmed Rita’s suspicions and brought memories of doctors’ visits with Ashley flooding back.
"My first reaction was ‘no way’," gasped Rita. "I couldn’t believe I could have two children with developmental [disabilities]. How wrong I was."
Doctors diagnosed Becca with cerebral palsy—a non-progressive motor condition that causes physical disability in human development. Rita enrolled Becca in special education courses, but as Becca began middle school, she watched her daughter’s self-esteem start to dwindle.
"Many people with cognitive disabilities don’t know there is anything wrong. But it’s almost harder for the kids who do know, like Becca. They have a harder time because they know they are different," described Rita. "I was searching for a way to show Becca that she can do anything other kids can. That’s when I discovered Special Olympics."
Rita signed Becca and Ashley up for Special Olympics Wisconsin (SOWI) as soon as they turned eight years old. It didn’t take long for Becca to discover her love for aquatics.
"I was watching Michael Phelps on T.V. and thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I could do that,’" recalled Becca. "My mom said, ‘You can do that’. She was right. I just had to work at it and I have—for a long time."
Becca hit the pool swimming up to three hours a day, six days a week. Whenever she contemplated giving up, she thought of Phelps—who wouldn’t let his Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) take him off course—and kept swimming.
"By the time she turned 11, she was a completely different person. I know that without Special Olympics it would have been a lot harder for me to help Becca become the person she is today," said Rita. "I have watched her grow from a shy, timid, quiet person to a strong, outgoing, fun individual. I give SOWI full credit for doing that."
Since she started aquatics, she has won 16 medals, attended nine State competitions, one National Games, and this year, SOWI chose Becca to swim the 200m and 100m Freestyle, 100m Backstroke and 50m Medley Relay at the 2011 Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece! Stelpflug is one of just two Wisconsin athletes to attend the event slated to be the largest sporting event of the year!
"I’m ecstatic! I love what I do," said Becca with passion in her eyes. "I love to compete. It takes [me] to places [I] have never been before."
Rita proved that a mother’s faith in her child can overcome the toughest obstacles and Special Olympics is right there to hold her hand along the way.