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Special Olympian Steffl comes up golden

Post-Bulletin - 7/12/2018

July 12--The fastest Alex Steffl ran all last week in the Special Olympics USA Games might have come when it was announced that an athlete from the District of Columbia was on the awards stand.

Steffl, who is autistic, has no particular affinity for those from the Washington, D.C., area. But the high-functioning 23-year-old Rochester man -- who works at Mayo Clinic as a lab assistant as part of the Project Search program -- was collecting commemorative state pins from each of the 51 states represented at the Special Olympics USA Games. Each athlete was given about 25 pins representing their home state to begin the Games.

Suddenly, on the awards stand was an athlete who could potentially hand Steffl the only pin he was missing, the District of Columbia's. In four days, Steffl had already gathered the other 50 in what would be a nearly week-long stay at the Special Olympics USA Games, at the University of Washington in Seattle.

So there he went. It was a dead sprint for Steffl in pursuit of pin No. 51 and a possible end to this exhilarating scavenger hunt.

He got it, all right, giving the first-time Special Olympics USA Games participant a major highlight.

But it wasn't THE highlight.

Going for gold

That's because Steffl didn't just come home with state pins, he also came home with gold.

Steffl ran the second leg on an ultimately winning 4x100 relay team from Minnesota.

"They told us to just run as fast as we could and to stay in our lanes," said Steffl, who with two others named Alex on his relay, was nicknamed the "Bearded Alex" to differentiate them.

The "Bearded Alex" did his job.

"When my Alex got the baton and later passed it on to another Alex, I knew we had a chance to win gold," said Michelle Steffl, Alex's mother. "We were all screaming and shouting during the last leg of the race, and we saw the lead that we had. And then there were tears."

It wasn't just Michelle who was overcome by the moment. Alex and his father, Kevin Steffl, were also both in tears. Kevin had spent countless hours working with his son prior to the Olympic meet.

Much of the work they did together was in the shot put, one of the four events that Alex participated in at the Special Olympics USA Games. They'd head to a park two blocks from their house and start throwing together, breaking down Alex's form in the event.

There was also much time spent by Alex training with his Rochester special-needs organization, the Rochester Flyers. Track and field started for the Flyers in April. When Alex is not doing that with them, he's playing softball with the Flyers, or flag football, or his favorite game of floor hockey.

Alex began his Special Olympics USA Games last week taking part in the 100-meter dash. He just missed medaling there, finishing fourth. That was followed by him running the 200. Again, he just missed a medal, with another fourth place.

Then came the shot put, just an hour after the 200.

"I just hoped he remembered what we'd practiced," Kevin said.

He did. Alex was good enough to finish third in the shot and would have won gold had his best throw not been disqualified, his feet having drifted over the line.

When Alex went to the podium to collect his Olympic bronze medal, he and Kevin were both in tears, so overcome by the moment.

That was on a Tuesday. Two days later things would get even better. They'd be golden.

"It was super-duper fun," Alex said. "I had a blast."

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