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Special Olympics coach reflects rewards of leading a team

The Bigfork Eagle - 1/15/2018

At birth, Robbie Hayes weighed just 4 pounds, 4 ounces. He came a little early, but to his mom, Carolyn Wallace, he was perfect.

However, doctors told the 19-year-old mother a different story.

Robbie had Down syndrome.

"It was horrifying because you look at your child and you think he's perfect and there's a doctor standing over you saying that's not true," Wallace recalled.

Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused by abnormal cell division that creates additional genetic material in chromosome 21. The syndrome is characterized by developmental delays, intellectual disabilities and a distinct facial appearance. As recently as the 1980s, the life expectancy for people with Down syndrome was just 25 years, but today, they live until 60 on average, with some reaching their 70s and 80s.

When her son was first diagnosed, Wallace wasn't at all familiar with the condition. Back then, about 21 years ago, Wallace said students with special needs were ostracized from the rest of the population in their own, separate classrooms.

She was also shocked to learn that Robbie's Down syndrome put him at risk for a host of other medical issues - such as heart and thyroid problems.

It was a lot, all at once, for a new mom to take in.

"I was a pretty young mom. I had a lot to learn in a pretty short amount of time," she said.

That sense of shock, of "this isn't happening to you" didn't completely fade as Robbie grew older.

When he reached middle school age, Wallace learned of a Special Olympics team organized through the Polson School District. At first, she hesitated to get involved. She wanted Robbie to compete on "normal" athletic teams with the rest of his class. But it wasn't long after she gave Special Olympics a shot that she was hooked.

Special Olympics is a national nonprofit that organizes athletic training and competitions for people with intellectual disabilities. The statewide branch of the group, Special Olympics Montana, serves 2,000 athletes annually in 65 communities across Montana.

From the excitement of the games to the life lessons taught through the sports themselves - Special Olympics was a great fit for both she and her son.

"When he graduated from high school, I knew if Robbie wanted to continue participating in Special Olympics, I would have to start a team," Wallace said.

So in 2015, the Flathead Lake Buccaneers were born. The team consisted of Robbie, now 21, and three other graduating seniors from his class. Wallace learned about the different sports and how to coach her athletes as interest in various disciplines mounted. For every athletic event, participants are required to attend between eight and 10 practices, which can quickly add up to a lot of hours on top of her already busy schedule - Wallace works as a board certified emergency room nurse at Polson'sProvidence St. Joseph Medical Center. In addition to maintaining her career and family life, she also fundraises for the team, coaches, drives athletes to and from practice and ensures that they make it to competitions.

But the efforts and sacrifice are well worth it.

"Besides being a mom, it's probably the most rewarding job out there," Wallace said, of her position as a local program coordinator for the Flathead Lake Buccaneers.

The energy at local or state Special Olympics events is a big part of what drives her involvement.

"The athletes root so actively for each other, they all console each other - and this is all regardless of their team affiliation. It doesn't matter if they have a blue or purple shirt on. Every single athlete is cheering for each other," Wallace said. "They all want to win, but they just celebrate each other's successes."

In bowling, when one player throws a strike, she said the entire building will erupt into cheers. And when she arrives on site, she's "bombarded with hugs" from complete strangers.

"They don't have the barriers that you and I have," she said.

Polson will host the Winter Invitational Feb. 26, a regional version of the state Special Olympics Winter Games.

Wallace will earn her winter sports certification this week and can begin preparing her team of seven to tackle events such as Nordic skiing and showshoeing.

"I'm so inspired by their resilience and determination," Wallace said. "They're dealing with disabilities that I can't even fathom of having - they might be in wheelchair, they might have one side of their body paralyzed and it just never stops them."


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