Cat Cornelius and Dylan Nowicki are partners who coach together for La Crosse Parks & Rec (6-36). After being impressed by their coaching and the camaraderie they shared with their players at the State Flag Football Tournament last month, we asked Cat to tell us a little more about their Special Olympics story in a Q&A.
SOWI: Tell us a bit about when and why you and Dylan started coaching for Special Olympics.
Cat: In the Fall of 2013 I moved to La Crosse to pursue my bachelor’s degree in Therapeutic Recreation at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. I knew I wanted to work with people with cognitive disabilities in a recreational setting and when I heard about Special Olympics in the area I immediately looked up contact information to apply for a coaching position. I started with bowling, our most popular sport, and I felt extremely welcomed by the athletes; like I had made 100 genuine friends in just one day. I continued to coach all year round followed with basketball skills, soccer, softball, bocce, and flag football.
“During practice we are coaches but before and after we are also advocates, mentors, and friends to our athletes and we hope that this impacts them positively.”
When Dylan moved to La Crosse from our hometown of Ashland, Wisconsin in 2014, he started joining me at practices and special events. He quickly fell in love with the atmosphere and community just like I did. He started volunteering, which then lead to coaching alongside me in basketball skills, softball, and his favorite – flag football. We both grew up being very involved in sports all year round. I played soccer and softball and he played football, so for us getting to coach and lead was a really positive and fun experience.
SOWI: What are some favorite memories that stand out for you in your time coaching?
Cat: Out of the hundreds of wonderful moments, one that stands out for me is in 2015 when we went to a Brewers game with over 20 athletes for a special events trip and one of our athletes got to throw the first pitch. John, 6’5″, hyper and sweet as can be is jumping for joy as he anxiously waits for someone to walk him to the mound. Without hesitation he whips it to the plate with a successful first pitch. To say I could see and feel the excitement on his face would be an understatement. I felt so proud to be a part of the group that was with him at the stadium.
Going to Green Bay for the “Exceptional Abilities” tournament this year was also really exciting. Playing on the Packers’ practice fields outside the stadium helped our athletes feel even more like the rock star athletes that they are. They listened and played exceptionally despite the 90 degree weather on the turf with no shade in sight. They hardly complained and just got through the day like professional athletes do all the time.
SOWI: What do you think (or hope) is the biggest impact you make on your team as a coach?
Cat: I think Dylan and I share a passion of caring for our athletes and that means it goes way beyond just coaching. We challenge our athletes physically but also emotionally to be better teammates, friends, coworkers, and family members to the people around them. Dylan especially tries to encourage responsibility with the football team with being to every practice on time (being a 9-man team it is important that every player shows up to practice), prepared, and with a respectful attitude. I try to work on the emotional side of things with our athletes like problem solving or finding positive coping mechanisms to stressors on and off the field. We also talk a lot about navigating safe friendships and relationships since a lot of our athletes are so social in their community. During practice we are coaches but before and after we are also advocates, mentors, and friends to our athletes and we hope that this impacts them positively.
“I believe Special Olympics reminds us of how important friendship, kindness, and being included really is. When you feel welcomed and wanted your whole outlook and attitude will mirror that. All everyone really wants is to be accepted and at Special Olympics you will feel that.”
SOWI: How did your team do in Neenah this year and what was a highlight of the experience?
Cat: Dylan’s first response was, “well, we got second!” Four years ago we got fourth, three years ago we got third, and last year we got second so we were really striving for first place this year. We won our first two games which sent us to the championship round. We were trying to make the best of the cold and wind by keeping our athletes in good spirits. We played 5 on 5 near the fields to keep warm, took some team pictures on the big boomer football sled, and walked around the fields scoping other teams and the souvenir tent (with several coffee trips for Dylan and I). We ended up losing to the MCM Packers which put us in second place overall. We were bummed but our players showed great sportsmanship and maturity despite being disappointed. We had a three-hour bus ride home that was full of laughs and smelly feet. The highlight for both of us was merely sharing the experience with our team, getting to know them better each trip we take, and watching their progress on and off the field.
SOWI: What would say to others who might be considering coaching with Special Olympics?
Cat: If you are considering coaching Special Olympics….do it! You learn so much about individuals with disabilities and what a fraction of their life is like. Dylan says coaching Special Olympics has helped him develop into a more patient person who has the ability to empathize more, communicate better, and enjoy the little things in life that many people take for granted.
SOWI: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Cat: I believe Special Olympics reminds us of how important friendship, kindness, and being included really is. When you feel welcomed and wanted your whole outlook and attitude will mirror that. All everyone really wants is to be accepted and at Special Olympics you will feel that.