Special Olympics CO Athlete Interviews

Special Olympics CO Athlete Interviews
Several Special Olympics Colorado athletes were interviewed by Charley Falkenburg, a Masters Student at Regis University for a class project focusing on Cultural Issues and Social Justice. Check out their individual interviews below!

Morrigan Hubbard

Morrigan is an athlete in the Special Olympics who is currently specializing in Athletics (Track and Field) and Bowling. She shared that she particularly loves competing as well as getting to know her teammates. Morrigan is dedicated to her training and spends at least two hours a week in bowling practice and additional time doing warm-up running exercises for athletics.

And not even COVID could slow her down. Throughout the pandemic, she continued to train while accommodating wearing a face mask.

Morrigan got particularly excited when reflecting on her love of running. In describing her speed, she stated, “It’s like boom! I’m off!” and shared how running fast makes her feel like the Superhero, Flash. While Morrigan loves to compete, for her, the best part is congratulating her teammates and telling them that they did a good job.

Morrigan also had some exciting plans post-US Games: hit up Disney with her mom and uncle. Longer-term, she is focused on staying healthy and continuing to train and be active.
When asked what advice she would give others hoping to compete in the Special Olympics, Morrigan shared that future athletes just need to do their best. “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you will always be a winner.”

Aidan McNeese

Aidan is a Special Olympics athlete who plays a variety of sports but will be competing in the sport of swimming at the US Games in June. Aidan shared that it is a big honor for him to represent Colorado in the US Games. “I am going to do my absolute best,” he added. “I am just excited.”

Aidan also shared some challenges he experienced in getting to this point in his athletic journey. For example, when he started, he was not very quick and did not have as much endurance. However, he overcame these challenges through practicing, practicing, and practicing some more.

He also made sure to often remind himself that he could do it, and sure enough he was able to build up his speed.
Aidan also felt the strain of the pandemic and the limitations it created for his training routine. “I had a very hard time with the fact that I still needed to keep going,” he shared. But with the support of his family, he persisted with continuing to train right in his backyard.

“At first I thought ‘oh my goodness’ but then I kept going and nowhere are,” he added. “It was hard but I got through it.”

When asked what he loved about competing in swimming, Aidan shared how he really loved being in the water. Equally so, he simply loved the rush of being able to do his absolute best, give it his all, beat his personal goals, and congratulate his fellow teammates and competitors. “That’s a big part of being an athlete,” he added. “It’s a whole bunch of fun.”

His advice to future Special Olympic athletes is to make sure they try and do their absolute best. “Get out of your comfort zone,” he added. “Take one step at a time.”

Leigh Shafer

Leigh is a busy young woman. She is a horseback rider, a basketball player, an employee at King Soopers, and a Special Olympics athlete who will be competing in Swimming at the US Open Games. “I just love being in the pool and swimming my butt off,” she added.

Leigh is no stranger to the pool — she has been swimming competitively since the fourth grade in a local Iowa YMCA program. She continued to swim through middle school and high school, and then got into the Special Olympics when she and her family moved to Colorado.

To train for the US Games, she has been completing challenging swim workouts several times a week with her mother, Laura.

Not even the pandemic could deter her from training — she simply worked through it while complying with safety precautions and supplemented her workouts with bike rides.

During her tenure with the Special Olympics, Leigh has participated in both regional and state games. In fact, she was the only representative for Boulder at the state games and had the opportunity to be the first to walk into the stadium for the opening ceremony.

In watching her daughter’s journey, Laura shared how proud she is of Leigh. “It’s amazing to see Leigh grow as a person, embrace the sport of swimming, and be a leader as she helps take some other kids under her wing,” Laura shared.

For Leigh, competing and participating in the Special Olympics means more than simply winning — it is the connection she has with her fellow teammates. “Win or lose, it is the fact that she is there doing it with her friends and peers,” said Laura.

Anna Mercado

Anna is an elite athlete who has mastered more sports within the first two decades of her life than most people pursue during their entire lives. She has pedaled in cycling, dribbled in basketball, bumped in volleyball, volleyed in pickleball, tossed in Bocci ball, raced in track and field, and sped through powder while skiing.

And now, she has channeled her bodily and mental strength to compete in powerlifting in the US Games in June 2022 as a Colorado Special Olympics athlete.
“I feel accomplished,” Anna described. “This was a goal of mine to accomplish.”

Anna certainly puts in the work. She trains alongside her mother, Marianne, four times a week starting as early as 6 am to squat, bench press, and do a variety of other exercises to increase her strength.
“Yeah, I am pretty strong,” Anna agreed. “I love a good workout and staying healthy.”

Anna is also pretty equipped with a variety of assets that help her in her competitive field of choice. Marianne shared that Anna is naturally strong, takes direction well, works great with her supportive coaches, and has a great feel for when and how to use her body when engaging in weights that can create risk of injuries if not used appropriately.

This is particularly impressive as Anna often works through the challenges of muscle atrophy in her chosen competitive sport.

“This has been about Anna recognizing that it is not about her inability, but about her ability to do something like this,” explained Marianne.

This makes all the more sense upon learning that Anna taught herself how to do activities such as roller skate and ride a bike.

“She just never gives up,” added Marianne.

It was not until second grade that Anna was diagnosed with sensory integration dysfunction. It was also determined that she only had vision in one eye due to an optic nerve impairment. But that never deterred Anna’s family from encouraging her to pursue athletics and participate and compete in traditional elementary, middle, and high school sports of which she held her own and excelled.

Now, she is continuing her Special Olympics career that started about five to six years ago. She is particularly excited to participate in the US Games and compete with her friends and peers. When asked how she feels when competing, Anna shared that it makes her feel proud of herself. “I don’t give up and I keep trying,” she explained. “I always stay in my attempts.”

For any interested individuals, Anna encouraged them to join the Special Olympics. “It’s okay to be a Special Olympics athlete — no one judges you,” she added. “Everyone supports you and cheers you on.”

Once the US Games are over, Anna fully intends to keep powerlifting — a sport that she has described as being a part of her lifestyle. She also will continue her volunteer work with horse care, work at her two part-time jobs, and thrive as a Special Olympics athlete.

“She is very busy,” Marianne explained with a laugh. “She challenges herself and it does take time, but she gets there. She just wants to be like everyone else.”

A note from the author, Charley Falkenburg:

Interviewing Special Olympics Colorado athletes allowed me to gain an even greater respect and appreciation for populations with intellectual disabilities. What stood out to me most, was that these individuals were not deficient- they were simply different. This was so clear to me when I got to interview a bunch of awesome athletes. They truly inspired me with their drive, goals, personalities, empathy, and just sheer love and enjoyment for athletics, their fellow competitors, and teammates, and of course their families, loved ones, and friends. Their resounding message was one I think we can all learn from, which was: just keep trying, do your best, and don’t give up.

I also do want to give a quick shout out to the athletes and their families who made time for me to speak with them – it left an indelible mark on me that I will carry forever and makes me smile even now as I write about it.

About Charley Falkenburg:

Charley is originally from New Jersey and is now living in Colorado. She is currently earning not one, but two Master’s Degrees in criminology and counseling at Regis University. When she’s not buried in textbooks or obnoxiously large jigsaw puzzles, you can find her in the mountains hiking, snowshoeing, and in wintertime, usually rolling around in the snow in her snow pants and pelting her partner with misshapen snowballs.

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