Only competing in Special Olympics sports for two years, 9-year-old Brynn Schmidt has already earned a gold in track, a gold in bowling and three silver medals for track and field events.
The Fulton resident is certainly proud of her awards, but when asked what her favorite part of Special Olympics is, she quickly replied “people.” The medals mean a lot to Brynn, but the people offer her strength in numbers.
Those people are her classmates and teachers, who filled the hallways of her elementary school in celebration before the inaugural South Callaway Track Meet for Special Olympics last September. They clapped, cheered, gave high-fives and sported signs of encouragement as she and her fellow South Callaway student Special Olympians paraded past, carrying handmade paper torches.
They are her coaches and fellow Special Olympians, who offer positive reinforcement and help enhance her skills in each of her three sports — track, bowling and cheerleading/dance.
They are her family — parents Shannon and Brian, and her brothers 9-year-old Zane and 7-year-old Gavin — who cheer her on at local tournaments, volunteer at Special Olympics activities and shower her with love and support.
Brynn is surrounded by people who see her developing skills, fuel her enthusiasm as an athlete and know she can do anything she puts her mind to.
“There is no limit to what they can do. A lot of people think because they have a disability that they can’t do things, but I think they can do just as much as anyone else. Don’t ya?” Shannon said to her daughter.
Brynn nodded her head, casting a huge smile back to her mom.
Becoming a Special Olympian
Shannon and Brian had always knew they wanted to adopt a child.
“Brian is adopted, and we always had that in the back of our mind we want to adopt a child of our own,” said Shannon, who works in nuclear medicine at Jefferson City Medical Group (JCMG). “We were open to having a special needs child since I work in the medical field and Brian is a firefighter (in Fulton), so we both understand. … We also wanted an older child that was closer to our boys’ ages.”
After about an 18-month process, the Schmidts adopted a 4 1/2–year–old girl with Down Syndrome from China.
“She spoke no English (when they first brought her home) and we spoke no Chinese,” Shannon said with a giggle. “She was fluent in Chinese and still speaks some. However, her paraprofessional Krissy (Rees) goes with her at school and helps her a lot. Even though she goes to speech and OT (occupational therapy), she is mainstream and spends the rest of her time in the classroom like everyone else. She has learned half the English language, her colors, numbers and how to read. She does very well and is very smart.”
The Schmidt family entertained the thought of Special Olympics involvement for Brynn after talking with family friends. Zane and Gavin were in Cub Scouts, and a man who also was involved with that program has a daughter, Tina, who bowls and dances through Special Olympics. That discussion led to Brynn trying her first Special Olympics sport, bowling, two years ago.
“In fact Tina’s mother … helps coach the bowling team,” Shannon said. “I didn’t know what to think (about Special Olympics at first). You never know what it is going to be like, but everybody was so welcoming. They helped us sign her up for bowling, and then track.”
Brynn’s jumped right into bowling, practicing and competing in regular 10-frame games.
“When they do practices, they have four or five of them together. When they go to a tournament, they pair them up based on their scores from practices so they are competing at the same level,” Shannon said. “She can’t pick up the balls yet because they are so heavy, so she uses the ramp and aims it. … But she bowls better than mama.”
Brynn’s best score was a 103, beating out her brother Zane who is allowed to bowl with her during practices at the Fulton Bowling Center.
“And, what do you say when you do good?” Shannon asked Brynn.
“Boo-ya!” she replied, giving a fist-pump and a grin.
Being a Special Olympian
The way Special Olympics sports are designed helps Brynn have victorious moments that warrant a well-deserved “boo-ya.”
The Central Area, in which Brynn competes for Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO), is geographically the largest of six regions and serves 33 counties. Special Olympics offers a young athlete program, designed to introduce children ages three to seven to the world of sports and get them acclimated with Special Olympics. At 8 years old, they become traditional athletes, and Special Olympics makes sure all athletes can grow and excel in the sports they choose.
“For competition, specifically track and other individual sports, we have a division process that groups athletes by gender, age and preliminary score. For team sports, we divide them out by score and the average age of athletes on the team,” said Megan Wallace, SOMO Central Area program manager.
As a result, competitions are much more exciting and fun when athletes of all ability levels are assured closely contested athletic competitions, according to Mandi Ballinger, SOMO marketing and communications director.
“In event after event, heat after heat, everyone has a fair chance to compete. Athletes are encouraged to strive for their personal best — a quest that forever challenges one’s potential and opens the door to undreamed possibilities, both in sports and in life,” she said.
The excitement of bowling and the people involved with Special Olympics encouraged Brynn to look at other sports to join. The next was track and field, in which her South Callaway Elementary School teachers coach.
“Once they consider they are going to participate (in track), they work with them at the school during PE or when they have free time. They work with them on their running, throwing and jumping,” Shannon said, noting those are the three main events for Brynn’s age group in track.
Brynn has competed in three track meets total, the first at Hermann High School. The second was the inaugural South Callaway Track Meet for Special Olympics last September.
“The school district of South Callaway, especially their SPED teachers, really took the reins on organization and fundraising the event. There were almost 40 participants, but we see this number increasing over the years,” Wallace said, noting the Central Area is seeing an increase in more local events with three track meets added last year.
Organizers and volunteers hosted many fundraisers to support this first event, which welcomed Fulton and New Bloomfield school districts and two new school districts to Special Olympics, Osage R-1 (Chamois) and Osage R-3 (Fatima).
“We will definitely be having another local track meet at South Callaway. This year it is scheduled for Sept. 27, with a rain date of Oct. 4,” Wallace added.
Not only did Brynn fair well at the South Callaway Track Meet, she was delighted to be a part of the pre-parade celebrations and have Zane and fellow elementary school students and staff cheer her on. Brynn also received lots of audience support during two competitions/performances with her newest Special Olympics sport, cheer and dance.
Mizzou student Kelsey Boschert started this team a few years back, and Brynn became one of its youngest members last year. The Spirits includes athletes ranging in age up to their 30s and practices once a week at the Columbia Dance Studio.
Wallace helped coach The Spirits, along with Jennifer Pestle, who will become head coach after Boschert graduates. Under the coaches’ tutelage and motivation, the squad of about 15 members participates in performances throughout Mid-Missouri.
The routines stick with The Spirits. This was apparent as Brynn mimicked the dance movements and sang along to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling” from her favorite movie, “Trolls,” while watching a video Shannon shared from The Spirits’ last season.
“Younger athletes are so fun to watch. Of course, they’re adorable, but when you watch them over the course of a few weeks, you can really see them grow. An athlete might show up to practice on week one and have trouble following directions, but then by week eight, she’s already in place, waiting for the coach to get started,” Ballinger said. “All of our athletes grow and change throughout the season, but there’s something especially satisfying about seeing it really click for a new athlete.”
A Passion for SOMO
The people Brynn has met through Special Olympics have also stuck with her. She’s found many friends in fellow athletes, like 10-year-old Kalia Silvers, who Brynn competed with in her first track meet.
“I think it has helped her outward look toward people. She was kind of shy sometimes. It gets her out doing things with new people. … There is a tremendous amount of camaraderie between the athletes,” Shannon said. “When we joined Special Olympics we felt accepted right away. Everyone was friendly and helpful. … It also has encouraged us to get people to become aware of Special Olympics.”
Shannon, Brian and Brynn’s grandparents have also helped coach and volunteer at local events, hoping to do more in the future as Brynn gets more involved with the organization’s programs.
“SOMO is such a great social network for families, as well. I see families really utilize each other for advice and support,” Wallace said. “Almost always, when someone volunteers at an event, they are hooked. The pure happiness of our athletes is truly contagious. And their genuine gratefulness for all SOMO does for them makes everything beyond worth it.”
In the 12 years Ballinger has been involved with Special Olympics Missouri, she has watched many athletes grow up and become responsible, contributing citizens. The skills they learn in Special Olympics can apply to schoolwork and help them earn a diploma, learn social skills, get a job and earn money for themselves.
“They get involved in their communities; they are respected. Special Olympics helps our athletes be seen for more than their disability,” she added.
Those personal journeys of athletes are what inspire many who get involved in Special Olympics. It did for Wallace and the Schmidt family.
“I love seeing the athletes grow athletically and socially. And I love that SOMO challenges them to become stronger athletes,” Wallace said. “The younger athletes make my heart so full, I get so excited to see them get involved so young and then stick with it for life.”
For more information, visit SOMO.org, and for programs in the Central Area, call 573-256-6367 or visit SOMO.org/CentralArea.