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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Local Swimmer Gold Medal Winner in Special Olympics

Katie Hefele with coaches Whitney Campbell (left) and Sarah Morrison (right)
by Grace DeGregorio

Katie Hefele of Mt. Lookout is a busy young woman.  She has been  active - both as an artist and instructor through its TAP (Teaching Artist Program) - for about eight years with Visionaries + voices, a nonprofit that provides studio space, exhibition opportunities, supplies and support to more than 125 visual artists with disabilities.  In addition, Katie’s colorful artwork donated to Double Vision, the organization’s annual fund raiser, has attracted enthusiastic high bidders during its auctions.
Katie also is involved in sports such as volleyball and bowling.  But it’s in swimming, which she has enjoyed for over 10 years, that she has excelled.  She’s earned quite a few medals in various competitions, but this year she finished first in the Special Olympics Hamilton County 50-yard freestyle, earning a coveted Gold Medal.  In so doing, she also achieved a personal record, breaking under a minute.
More than 140 athletes total were in the pool for the various competitions, held at Princeton High School.  
“I said to myself, ‘Did I just win this?’,” laughs Katie, who started with Special Olympics as a volunteer helping younger children swim.  She also has swum with the M.E. Lyons YMCA in Anderson and Clark Montessori Jr. and Varsity teams while a student there.
Katie Hefele proudly wears her Gold Medal for winning the 50-yard freestyle competition in the 2017 Spring Special Olympics Hamilton County.
Katie now qualifies for the State Special Olympics, held at Ohio State.  “We’ve been there before,” says mom Julie Hefele.  “It’s like an Olympic Village - we call it ‘Tent Town’ - with one activity after another.”
Julie explains there are different age groups, from age 8 and up, participating in Special Olympics Ham Co. She adds “It’s all done by volunteers,” including son Brian Hefele, who has assisted with events.
“When he was 14 or 15, Brian did a unified relay [bringing Special Olympic athletes together on the same team with athletes without mental and developmental disabilities] with Katie, which was an amazing experience for our family,” says Julie.  “They were in the same event as equals.”
Both Julie and husband Tom Hefele give much credit to the coaches at Special Olympics Hamilton County - including Katie’s coaches Whitney Campbell and Sarah Morrison - who “are all so good inspiring participants to do their very best and be proud.  They don’t care if they finish in three seconds or 30 minutes - they’re happy to finish an event.
“Being involved with Special Olympics Hamilton County gives Katie an opportunity she wouldn’t have otherwise.  And it has allowed us to see our kids succeed in the same sport on different levels. When you have a child with special needs, this doesn’t always happen.  We enjoy being able to watch her doing things she’s good at and being proud of herself. 
“The idea of ‘winning’ is different - there are no ‘losers’ in the group.  Everyone is happy when a friend does well.”
“I hope to deep getting more medals,” Katie who adds she finds time in her busy schedule to train “by working it out.”  
Her advice to others is “Keep practicing and do your best.”

Special Olympics Hamilton County Makes Life Special for Its Athletes

Since its inception in 1971, Special Olympics Hamilton County has offered an invaluable service - “providing year‑round sports, training and competition in a variety of sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience the joy of achievement, be included in the community, build skills and make friends.”  The non-profit’s stated goal is “for all persons with intellectual disabilities to have the opportunity to become useful and productive citizens who are accepted and respected in their communities.
The heart of Special Olympics Hamilton County is its volunteers - over 600 - with only four paid staff administering services.
Program Director Janet Smith, who has a background as a special education teacher, began her involvement with Special Olympics Hamilton County in 1976 as a coach before being invited in 1987 to join the staff. Janet manages all facets of the organization. She is assisted by Lindsay Bartsch, a 2015 graduate of the University of Cincinnati who says she “always wanted to work with Special Olympics but didn’t know how!  I was an athlete and coach soccer.”  When the job as Assistant Program Director opened two years ago, Lindsay was happy to fill the position.  She assists in planning and execution of programs as well as handling athlete medicals, volunteers and partners.
Rounding out the staff are Development Director Grace Ward, who handles grant writing, and a person to be hired to handle marketing and fundraising.
In addition to a wide variety of sports - from “typical” choices such as aquatics, track and field,  basketball, soccer and tennis to those more unique such as bocce, cycling, equestrian and power lifting) - Special Olympics Hamilton County also encompasses training and participation in local meets as well as events on the sectional, state, national and maybe even world levels.  In addition, hours are devoted to coaching and travel to practices and events.
“Many people think Special Olympics is a one day event,” observes Janet. 
“We operate year round,” says Lindsay.  “For summer sports, for example, we start training in the spring.  There’s usually 12 weeks of commitment.  Volunteers who coach are in charge of the team to train, coach, handle family communications, attend events, handle equipment, etc.”  
Janet says travel often is part of the commitment for all involved.  “World events have been in Ireland, South Korea - in 2019 World is in Abu Dhabi!  The 2018 National is in Seattle.  Our athletes are competitive. They always talk about going to National and World.  It’s a big commitment.
“We’d like to do more community-based programming so families don’t have to travel as far for practices. Transportation is an area we struggle with, and we are constantly trying to bring our training to our athletes’ communities.”
Special Olympics athletes need to have a cognitive element as their main diagnosis, and they also may have other disabilities.  There are several options for participation, including Young Athletes (ages 2-7, but they can be younger or older, when appropriate), Training/Competition (ages 8 and older, with no upper age restriction) and Unified Sports (Special Olympics athletes and peer partners on the same team).  Athletes are placed in divisions deemed appropriate for their age and ability.
Janet adds, “Our athletes have the same needs as any other athlete - they need to train for weeks and they compete abiding by the Ohio High School Athletic Association rules. If not for Special Olympics, there would be no place for special our athletes to compete and have a chance to move to the next level.
“But,” she stresses, “they don’t always have to compete - that is an options most athletes take - but they can train non-competitively as well.”
Funding is essential to allow Special Olympics Hamilton County, which is under an umbrella with other Special Olympics entities, to continue its mission.  Donors should be aware each Special Olympics group - such as national, state and local - is individually funded. Therefore, donors wishing their contributions be kept local need to specify they are for Special Olympics Hamilton County.  “Those donations stay here locally, with funds used for local events,” explains Janet.
“As programs grow, there is a need for more funds to pay for facilities,” explains Lindsay, whose responsibilities include securing training and event sites. “Our seasons are the same as local schools, so we’re competing with them for space.”  A school with a gym, for example, may not have it available for outside use if its own teams need it.
In addition to donations, Special Olympics Hamilton County holds three annual fund raisers: a golf outing in September, Cincinnati Corporate Olympics in July (24 teams of six, five from the corporation and one Special Olympics athlete) and the Champions Ball in April.  “We also do the Polar Bear Plunge with the state office the first weekend in February,” says Janet.
There are many opportunities for volunteer participation in Special Olympics Hamilton County.  For instance, Janet says, “Local volunteers can apply to be National or Wworld coaches.”  To learn more about how to apply as a Special Olympics Hamilton County volunteer or athlete, please contact the office at 513-271-2606, email or visit

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