The Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula swim team stands together for a photo at the 2023 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula)

Swimming to success

Special Olympics swim team brings home more than 30 medals, celebrates community

Athletes from the central peninsula Special Olympics team traveled to Anchorage’s Dimond High School earlier this month to compete in the Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games. Each of the 11 local athletes brought home at least one medal, and a total of 31 were claimed by the team — 16 gold, nine silver and six bronze.

Alex Harrison, who is 16, swam the 25-meter freestyle and the 50-meter freestyle, and on Friday he wore medals from both. He said he preferred the longer event because he got to swim back to the start.

This year was Harrison’s first with the Special Olympics team, and he said he only first swam in the deep end earlier this year. The pool at Dimond is a long course pool — different from the short course pools in which the team practices at Soldotna High School and Skyview Middle School. Each length would be more than twice as long.

Bringing home the two medals made him “very happy.”

Jason Kriss is 34, and he’s been competing in the Special Olympics for more than 10 years. He swam in four events, three different lengths of the freestyle and a freestyle relay which he anchored. He, too, said he liked the longer swims the most.

“It’s challenging,” he said.

Cece Strongheart, 15, also said this was her first year on the team. She competed in an individual medley and some freestyle. In the individual medley, she swam each of the four strokes — butterfly was her favorite because of its distinct mermaid kick.

Jess Gilbert is new to swimming for the central peninsula team, but she swam for a team in Juneau before. She participated in a relay and also swam a 100-meter backstroke.

Each of the athletes said they planned to return to the pool next year — to swim faster and make fewer mistakes.

The athletes said that competing in Anchorage was exciting. Kriss said it’s an opportunity to engage with a statewide community. He had friends from the Matanuska-Susitna region that he was able to spend time with.

Heidi Renner, the team’s coach, said that around 250 athletes competed from around the state.

Being part of both the local and statewide community, the athletes said, is what makes participating with the Special Olympics team exciting.

Strongheart said she was yelling a lot during the competition, as she cheered on her teammates.

In addition to the actual competition, there was time for the athletes to spend time together — at opening and closing ceremonies and at a dance.

The younger athletes’ parents said they were excited to be a part of the program — that it was something they had previously been unaware of, or that wasn’t available in places they’d lived before.

“The inclusion and acceptance and support, it’s utterly amazing,” Strongheart’s mother, Ann, said. “A safe space for everyone to be themselves.”

Owing to that sense of community, the athletes said they want to see the local Special Olympics program grow. Renner said that they’ve been “rebuilding” this year.

Being a part of the program, Harrison said, has been an opportunity to make new friends.

“I think we should get more people to sign up,” he said. “More people to hang out with.”

In Alaska, the Special Olympics runs in three separate seasons, with different sports offered at different times of the year. Renner leads swimming but said they’re looking for more athletes to participate and more volunteers to get other sports off the ground.

Basketball is one of the options that has been offered locally in the past. Without enough people to fill a team, the athletes can still compete in skills competitions, but Kriss said it’s been several years since a full squad has hit the court. Renner also pointed to snowshoeing and skiing as sports she’d like to see offered locally.

For more information about Special Olympics in Alaska, visit specialolympicsalaska.org, to get involved with the local program, visit facebook.com/SOAKCENPEN.

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.

A member of the Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula swim team receives a medal at the 2023 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula)

A member of the Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula swim team receives a medal at the 2023 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula)

Jess Gilbert swims the 100-meter backstroke at the 2023 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula)

Jess Gilbert swims the 100-meter backstroke at the 2023 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula)

Cece Strongheart smiles while competing at the 2023 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula)

Cece Strongheart smiles while competing at the 2023 Special Olympics Alaska Summer Games at Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska. (Photo provided by Special Olympics Alaska Central Peninsula)

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