By Sue Wambolt, Contributing Writer
Region – On Jan. 12, the Shrewsbury gymnastics program of Special Olympics Massachusetts (SOMA) celebrated its 20th anniversary. The celebration did not take place at a home, a restaurant or a fancy venue. Rather, the event, which honored founder Carie Miele, took place at the Special Olympics Yawkey Center in Marlborough.
As a youngster, Miele felt a connection to and a compassion for children with disabilities. In her speech at the 20-year celebration, Miele recalled her early interactions with these special friends.
“My first memory of knowing a person with a disability came when I was four years old. My mom had a friend whose daughter, Denise, had Down syndrome. I have very vivid memories of spending time with them. I knew Denise was different from me in some ways, but I also knew she was similar to me in many more ways. I also had a cousin a year older than me who had Down syndrome. When I was eight years old, I heard stories of Freddie competing in Special Olympics track and field. This was the first time I remember hearing about Special Olympics and I wanted to know more.”
While Miele was touched by her interactions with people with disabilities, and intrigued by the Special Olympics program, it was a television show
that changed everything.
“My “aha moment” came one day (in high school) when my mom and I were watching a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie about a child with Down syndrome,” Miele said. “The family had a physical therapist come into their home and work with their child. My mom and I looked at each other and I said, “That's what I want to do.””
That was the defining moment that changed her life, she said.
It was 1992 when Miele, a 19-year-old gymnast and physical therapy major at Northeastern University, approached Marianne Frongillo, the owner of Gymnastics Learning Center in Shrewsbury, about starting a Special Olympics gymnastics team at the center. Marianne answered with a single word that told Miele she could do anything – that word was “yes.”
SOMA started with 3 athletes, all of whom remain in the program today. There are currently 38 athletes on the team, ranging in age from 8 to 34, who train to compete in the Special Olympics Summer Games. Athletes compete in traditional gymnastics disciplines: men's artistic (floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars, high bar), women's artistic (vault, bars, balance beam, floor exercise), and women's rhythmic
(dance, clubs, hoop, ball, ribbon rope). The team has 31 coaches.
“I feel this program is a dream come true for kids who are differently-abled,” said Stacey Lavely, mother of 10-year-old participant, Jagger. “The gymnastics program is a place where my son can go without judgment and be who he is. Here, the athletes and their parents become part of a team – really more like a family – where they can work and play hard, share their talents, and own special light with the world.”
The goal of the program, Miele said, is “to provide an environment that is both?physically and emotionally safe?for athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete in the sport of gymnastics.”
Nancy Merrill is the great-aunt and guardian of 8-year-old Shawn Hebert, who is an athlete in the program.
“The day I met Carie, I knew immediately she was fully committed to Special Olympics and gymnastics,” Merrill said. “Carie has developed the gymnastics program far beyond what I imagined and it is truly a no-nonsense, but fun, experience for children with special needs. I’m still in awe with the commitment of the athletes, families and volunteer coaches.”
In 1996 Miele became the sports director for SOMA gymnastics. In 2002 she was inducted into the SOMA Hall of Fame and selected by the Boston Celtics for its Hero Among Us Award. Her team has received numerous other local awards and honors as well.
“While awards and honors are exciting and bring our team public recognition, what means the most to all of us are the personal success stories,” Miele said. “Athlete Caitlyn Kline spent four years hiding behind the awards podium at Summer Games before finally this past year stepping onto the podium to receive her medals.”
Miele is also a pediatric physical therapist at Thom Worcester Area Early Intervention in Shrewsbury.
When asked about the impact working with the Special Olympics team has had on her life, Miele answered simply.
“I have been doing this every week for 20 years, it is my life,” she said.
Echoing the sentiments of her coach and mentor some 20 years ago, Miele tells her athletes “yes you can” every time they walk into the gym.
“There is no greater gift one person can give another,” she said.
Local team members include: from Shrewsbury – athletes Jagger Lavely, Nancy Genatossio, Maria Kocia, Michael Rosenfeld, Shawn Hebert and Rachel Carlson and coaches Ali Manzello, James Carlson, Kamil Kocia, Andrzej Kocia and Aleksandra Kocia; from Northborough – athletes Gavin McDonald and Leah Toronto, and coaches Margaret Szulga, Ellie McDonald and Matt Toronto; from Westborough – athletes Gia Bellofatto and Caitlyn Kline and coach Triston Stone; and from Southborough – athlete Marie Gadbois and coaches Ben and Charlotte Cooperman.
For more information on the Special Olympics, visit http://www.specialolympics.org/.