Best of 2018 – Special Olympics gymnastics coach experiences her first USA Games

(l to r) Samantha Vayo of Worcester, Coach Margaret Szluga, and Samantha Berndt of Rutland

By Melanie Petrucci, Senior Community Reporter.

Northborough – Gymnastics coach Margaret Szluga recently travelled with the Massachusetts Special Olympics team to the 2018 USA Games held in Seattle Washington July 1-6.

Roughly 4,000 athletes and coaches from across the country competed before thousands of spectators.

“It was amazing and an adventure for sure,” Szluga said. “I didn’t really know what to expect but it was everything I could have hoped for.”

The Northborough resident is a speech language pathologist with Early Intervention in Marlborough where she works with very young children. She also volunteers for Challenge programs in the area where she helps with youth and college age team-building projects.

“When I was 11, my older sister would coach [Special Olympics] and I would tag along and kind of help out with some of the athletes,” Szluga said.

A former gymnast herself, Szluga contacted the Special Olympics soon after moving back to the area after graduate school to get involved.

“It was just something that we did and it was another way to experience gymnastics,” she recalled. “The Special Olympics team practiced on Saturday and for me it was a way to get my foot in the door coaching. I could help out and I could teach some of the skills that I knew. It was a really cool opportunity for me.”

When the opportunity came to go to Seattle, she said, she “jumped right on it.”

“It’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do, to go to a USA Games or World Games,” Szluga explained.

Two of her athletes were able to go as well which was “awesome.” They were her “two Sams,” Samantha (Sami) Vayo of Worcester and Samantha (Sam) Berndt of Rutland. They each have physical limitations which include hearing impairments and cerebral palsy.

“I was hoping that my girls would have fun and that I would have an opportunity to meet other coaches and see what other programs were doing,” Szluga noted. “I got the chance to network with a lot of the coaches and talk about the Massachusetts program and how it differs from other states that were there.”

Szluga said off the various gymnastics segments, she is partial to the floor routines.

“No matter your ability there is always something you can do on the floor,” she explained. “There is always something we can find that will look beautiful when we put it to floor music.”

Szluga is excited about what she can bring to the Massachusetts Special Olympic program and plans to continue to volunteer her expertise. Meanwhile, when she isn’t working or volunteering, she likes to spend her time with her husband and her dog. She also runs and participates in triathlons. She ran in the 2018 Boston Marathon.

For more information about the Massachusetts Special Olympics, visit