ORONO, Maine — A year ago, the last thing on Stephanie Stalter’s mind was striking gold at the Special Olympics Maine Summer Games.
The 16-year-old from Cushing was drowning in homework, feeling frustrated, and lacking enough free time to participate in some of the sports she loves.
It’s impossible to imagine now, but Stalter was shy and even a bit withdrawn while finishing her eighth-grade year in the Thomaston school system.
“She’s really come out of her shell,” said father Richard Snodgrass, a corrections officer at the Maine State Prison in Warren. “It wasn’t really the school’s fault, but last year, she was really getting overwhelmed with the homework, so one of the teachers suggested we check out the program at Rockland.
“She has a small learning disability and the people at Rockland are just overwhelmingly wonderful with her. We’ve just been very happy with what this has done for her.”
So is Stalter, a Rockland High School freshman whose ever-present grin and frequent laughter offer more than enough evidence of the turnaround.
“I transferred from Georges Valley because I couldn’t keep up with the math. And here, I actually have no homework,” Stalter said. “Plus I knew some of the kids in Rockland already and made new friends. Now I know all the kids in my class.”
And a lot more people got to know her Friday afternoon as she won a gold medal in her first Summer Games event: the 400-meter run —at the Beckett Complex on the University of Maine’s campus.
Stalter’s experience in her first Summer Games is typical of most all of the 1,500 Special Olympians competing in the 41st annual four-day event, whether they’re first-timers or grizzled veterans.
Stalter is also competing in the 200 and long jump.
“I was going to do the 800, but couldn’t fully run it, so I switched to 200 and just kept trying to push myself,” said Stalter, who has a new favorite event. “I’d have to say 400 because I love to run, plus the 400 is harder and I LOVE challenges!”
And her father loved watching her excel on Friday.
“It’s been great today. She’s talking to her mother [on the phone] now,” said Snodgrass, who helped sponsor a Special Olympics team while he was in the U.S. Army several years ago. “To tell you the truth, it was pretty awesome. Because of my work schedule, this is the first event of hers I’ve been able to attend.”
Stalter also took part in the Winter Games, where she earned a silver in the 100-meter cross-country race and a bronze in the 100 cross-country. She also captured a blue ribbon during the swimming competition in the 50-meter backstroke.
Not bad for an athlete whose favorite sport is soccer.
“I played in elementary school and middle school. Soccer’s really my main thing because it’s fast. I play everywhere but goalie,” she explained. “But this is a lot of fun, too.
“I like meeting new people and it’s fun to have competition once in awhile as long as you’re not too competitive at every single thing. Try to win, but have fun doing it.”
That’s the mantra for many involved in these games, from the athletes to the 600 coaches and another 500 volunteers making it happen.
“You see the hugs and high-fives and all the interaction that goes on,” said Mark Capano, Special Olympics Maine’s director of programs, sports and competitions.
“I was a recreation therapist at Pineland Center, which was the state’s largest facility for the developmentally disabled (1980-94) and joined Special Olympics.”
Capano coached Special Olympic athletes for 15 years while he was a recreation therapist at Pineland Center.
“It’s great because I come here and see a lot of athletes I coached at Pineland still competing,” Capano said. “I’m extremely fortunate to get paid for what I do. I like the renewed socialization I get from the interaction with the athletes.”
He isn’t sporting any gray hair, has no wrinkles and certainly isn’t walking with a limp, but Daniel Butler is one of those grizzled veteran participants, even at the age of 21.
Butler has been competing in Special Olympics events since the age of 5, but as many medals and ribbons as he’s collected over the years, he accomplished another first Friday: a silver in the 400.
“I really didn’t think he could do the 400, but his sister, who ran track said he could, so he started running it two years ago,” said Francie Butler, Daniel’s mother and a Special Olympics coordinator for Brewer since 1996. “This year, he didn’t put as much practice in because they dug up the [local Pendleton Street] track and he won a medal.”
Some of Butler’s teammates enjoyed success Friday as well.
Nicholas Kingsbury, 19, and Tia Springer, 20, earned bronzes as part of Brewer’s 4-by-100-meter relay team.
“I like the relay because it’s teamwork and you have to work together,” Springer said.
Teamwork was especially crucial to Brewer’s relay team success Friday as Kingsbury was called up to fill a vacancy in the lineup.
“This was my first relay,” said Kingsbury. “I was nervous, but I like it. It was really fun. I like being with the team.
Kingsbury admitted he has a new favorite event.
“It used to be softball throw, but now it’s the relay,” he said with a big smile.
Competition continues all day today with track and field events starting at 8:30 a.m. along with wheelchair events at 10 and the softball throw at noon. Sunday marks the finals of the 100-meter walk, the 1-kilometer walk, and the mile run, starting at 8 a.m.