Natasha Leininger stands ready for the baton to be pressed into her hand. Finally, she feels the cool metal and takes off running. Rounding the last curve of the track, the end in sight, her teammates cheer her on, screaming her name. As she crosses the finish line, the crowd goes wild. And this is just practice.
Leininger is an eight-year veteran of Manhattan Special Olympics, a club that has been providing a fun and supportive environment to athletes with intellectual disabilities since 1975. With various sports offered throughout the year, athletes stay busy with practices, tournaments and team get-togethers.
Though it is big a time commitment, Special Olympics has given Leininger many opportunities. In 2011, she was invited to travel to Athens, Greece, to be on the U.S. track team during the World Games. She ran the 100 meters and the 4x100m relay, placing sixth and third respectively. She also threw the mini javelin, a smaller and safer version of the javelin, and placed second in that event.
Leininger said she plans to continue with Special Olympics for a long time because of the influence it has had on her life.
“I get to meet new people,” she said. “It builds my enthusiasm. I can cheer on my teammates and be around great coaches.”
Jeff Kirk, whose son Colten is a Special Olympics athlete, also said he sees the benefit of being on the team.
“It offers the special-needs community a chance for camaraderie,” he said. “I know he’s never had teamwork, camaraderie, and, of course, competition.”
Colten has been involved in Special Olympics for almost two years and also plans to continue for many more.
Kirk, Leininger and their teammates are currently in the middle of the track season. Coach Jamie Schnee, who has been involved with Special Olympics since she was 12, is excited that track season is finally here.
“With each sport, there are certain things to work on, but track isn’t as concentrated,” she said. “There is something different to do every day. This keeps things new and fresh for both athletes and coaches. We have the most athletes in track season. Track offers more opportunities for all athletes.”
The team recently traveled to Topeka to compete in the Regional meet. Three athletes — Harley Rich, Michael Carpenter and Austin Tatum — brought home gold in all of their events.
In Special Olympics, each heat has a maximum of eight athletes. First, second and third place get medals — gold, silver and bronze — and fourth through eighth get ribbons. A disqualification still earns the athlete a participation ribbon. For competition, the athletes are divided by age, gender and ability level.
For each gender there are four age categories: 8-15, 16-21, 22-29 and 30 plus. Athletes also participate in a timed walk or run, and the times are used to establish the ability level of the athlete and insure they are placed with other athletes of similar capability. Special Olympics wants every athlete to be encouraged to participate and to be recognized for his or her performance.
“Regionals was awesome,” Schnee said. “It was hectic, but it was a good hectic. There are so many athletes, and it’s good to see how it is so positive. Everyone is so happy to compete.”
Schnee’s mother, Kim Schnee, is a special education teacher at Manhattan High School West Campus and has been involved in Special Olympics for 29 years. She has only missed two meets, and both of those were for the births of her daughters.
“I get to see my students in a different light, and that has bonded us,” she said. “ They get to know me as both a teacher and a coach.”
Jamie shares her sentiments.
“If I can make a difference in just one athlete’s life and help them improve, I’m happy.”
After doing so well at regionals, everyone is excited for state coming up on June 1-3 in Wichita. All of the athletes who went to regionals earned a spot at state because of their participation.
“State track is my favorite,” Jamie Schnee said. “There are hundreds of athletes, and it’s always hot, but it’s so fun. There is so much to do, it’s like regionals times 100.”