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Local athletes to compete in Special Olympics USA Games

St. Joseph News-Press - 7/1/2018

July 01--They put in the years of training, the hours of practice and stood up to the tenacity of their competition. The result: Four local athletes are going to Seattle to compete on their sports' biggest stage for the Special Olympics.

Today, athletes from St. Joseph and Savannah, Missouri, will join other competitors from around the U.S. for the Special Olympics USA Games. Like the Summer Olympics, the competition is held every four years and will feature more than 3,400 delegates in 14 different sports.

"There's going to be 70,000 spectators. It's going to be live on ABC. It's going to be a big deal," Alyssa Cress, program director for the North Area Special Olympics, said.

Held July 1 to 6 in Seattle, the Special Olympics USA Games will feature local athletes such as powerlifter Charlie Phillips, tennis player Simon Caldwell and bocce competitors Matt and Paul Davidson.

Helping with their development, Cress said it's been inspiring as she watches each athlete train for their event.

"This was totally not a free ride for them. They've been working for over a year to be a part of this," Cress said.

In order to make it to the games in Seattle, each athlete has to qualify for his or her event then go to a selection camp to train with others in their category. If they succeed, they're selected to compete on the biggest stage in Seattle.

"We expect a lot of them throughout the process, and so they know they have to go in there with sportsmanship and represent Missouri well," Cress said.

Working as unified partner, an individual without a disability, Paul Davidson said the journey with his son, Matt, has been mind-blowing.

"It's an awesome feeling getting to compete with him and work with him," he said.

When you talk to each athlete and his or her parents, you hear stories of what the competition has meant to each of them.

After adopting Matt when he was 11, Paul said bocce provided a way for the two to grow deeper as family members and teammates.

"Just the ride of getting closer and closer, growing as a father and son that way -- it's just been an awesome experience," Paul said.

When Phillips was born, his family was told he would not be able to walk or talk. Proving that assessment wrong and then some, he took to weightlifting in his teens and now lifts more than 400 pounds.

"That's why we can't wait to see what he can do. We're ecstatic for him," Tina Schoonmaker, his mother, said.

For more than a year, Phillips has been getting in Olympic shape by training three times a week, sticking to a healthy diet and competing in open meets.

"He's all about being very serious about doing this," Schoonmaker said.

While Caldwell has competed in previous Special Olympics games, Bertha Caldwell, his mother, said it's always a thrill.

"It's just heartwarming to see him succeed at things. He's just grown so much in the way he gets along with other people. It's not just his skill in tennis, it's being able to work with others," she said.

On June 29, the local athletes were given a send-off ceremony at Sam's Club. Between a limo ride to the airport and free massages, they were treated to the high life as they met up with the more than 50 athletes, 20 coaches and 16 Unified Partners from Missouri headed to Seattle.

As always, the community that watched each grow was there to see them take off.

"It does mean a lot to them, to have all of people showing up at the send-off ... I had people calling in, saying 'We want to make signs. We want to be there to cheer them on. We want to stand on the street and cheer as they drive off.' It's just a really big deal," Cress said.

The event not only places these athletes on the biggest stage, but it also allows them to experience some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. At the games, athletes from the WWE will be on-hand, along with celebrities like Taye Diggs and performers including Marshmello, singer-songwriter Charlie Puth and Ann Wilson of Heart.

After talking to each athlete, Cress said there's more excitement than nervousness as they head out for the big event.

"I think they'll be nervous when they get there. But right now, I'm sure they're just super excited and just living the dream," she said.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowGaug.


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