Competition drives Special Olympics athletes

Amanda Reiss, of Bethlehem, participates in rhythmic clubs during the gymnastics competition at the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Summer Games on Friday, June 6, 2014.
Amanda Reiss, of Bethlehem, participates in rhythmic clubs during the gymnastics competition at the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Summer Games on Friday, June 6, 2014. CDT photo

Heather Wirth, a Special Olympics athlete from Bedford County, left her fellow athletes inspired when they woke up Friday morning.

Wirth sang the national anthem the night before at the opening ceremonies of the 45th annual Special Olympics Pennsylvania Summer Games at Medlar Field at Lubrano Park in front of a crowd of about 5,000.

When Wirth finished, Centre County athlete Matthew Prosek said that hearing the national anthem was just what he needed for a little motivation for tennis activities Friday.

The day began at 6:30 a.m. with an athlete breakfast at Findlay Dining Hall, followed by team warm-ups and golf at 7 a.m.

Aquatics, basketball, bowling, equestrian sports, gymnastics, softball and tennis activities were also held at Penn State and other venues in the county. Track and field events will begin Saturday.

Prosek grabbed a red and white tennis racket and took the courts at Sarni Tennis Center on Penn State’s campus. He first had a solo match, and then teamed up with doubles partner Sarah Koston.

Prosek, 37, only recently got into tennis, along with teammate Jeff Peters, the “newbie,” who joined the team three years ago.

Prosek, a 25-year veteran of the Special Olympics, said he chose the sport because it was more individualized.

“I have no one to blame but myself if I do good or bad,” Prosek said.

He is one of five State College athletes on the Centre County tennis team who took the court in singles, doubles and skills competitions. The finals will be held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Sarni Tennis Center.

The team consists of Prosek; Koston, 71; Peters, 48; Steve McKinley, 53; and Margaret Vance, 60. Coaches Mike Wolff and Cathy Prosek lead them.

Together the athletes have about 107 years of total Special Olympics experience.

McKinley has been participating in tennis for 17 years, he said.

In 2010, Matthew Prosek made it to the nationals in Lincoln, Neb., where he won gold in doubles and silver in singles. Vance last made it to nationals in North Carolina in 1999.

Peters and Vance are the second doubles team representing Centre County, and McKinley played solo in the skills and short-court competition.

In singles on Friday, Vance won gold, while Koston, Matthew Prosek and Peters won bronze. Vance and Peters and finished with bronze. Prosek and Koston will compete Saturday for the bronze, as well. McKinley took home a bronze in the individual skills competition.

“It’s a team that’s so supportive and they’re embraced by all other athletes who are supportive,” Cathy Prosek said. “These games are just incredible, and rewarding and fun to come back to each year.”

Cathy Prosek has been involved with Special Olympics since at least 1989, when she and her family moved to the area from Washington, D.C. Matt Prosek, her son, has been a competitor ever since.

Although Cathy Prosek doesn’t know much about tennis, she was good at “shagging balls” that hopped the fence, she said. The coach also added that she enjoys seeing the athletes grow in athleticism and maturity.

“You see them bond together and really form a nice team,” Cathy Prosek said. “They all joke around and have their own inside jokes and the camaraderie. Each year, you work with athletes and see them mature in so many ways.”

Most athletes said they have a universal preparation plan that includes exercising on the treadmill, taking runs and walks outside, and keeping hydrated — possibly the most important aspect of training, said Centre County swimmer Tanya Roberts.

“You need to drink a lot,” she said.

On Friday, EMS responded to at least one athlete who suffered from heat exhaustion, according to Centre County dispatchers.

Stretching, keeping loose and drinking water is a pre-race warm-up for Centre County track and field competitors Dayna Baldwin, Matthew Campbell, Jason Graham, Abbagail Harvey, Jeff Kersavage, Danielle LaMar, Thomas Lucas and Braden Meckley.

It’s a routine similar to how the tennis team prepares, along with getting tips from Penn State experts like Mike Fenwick, assistant Penn State women’s tennis coach.

“You just want to keep yourself moving and learn from others,” Matt Prosek said.

The day finished with bowling at Northland Bowl for two Centre County members — Carolyn Bechtel and Trevor Chester — who will compete next week at the Special Olympics USA games in Princeton, N.J.

The three-day local event includes more than 2,000 athletes, 750 coaches and 2,500 volunteers from around the commonwealth, said spokeswoman Nicole Jones.