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Special Olympian brings home three medals

Taylor Becker brought home a bronze, silver and gold from the 2017 Special Olympics Minnesota swim meet. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

Three shiny medals hang in Taylor Becker's bedroom.

The 16-year-old swimmer returned from Minnesota Special Olympics with a gold, silver and bronze.

This was her first year qualifying for the state competition.

Taylor is a sophomore at Park Rapids Area High School, but she trains with a Bemidji community team.

From January through March, Taylor travels 100 miles round-trip weekly to practice with her Bemidji teammates. They use Bemidji High School's pool.

"I drive her up there every Wednesday for practice," said mom Renee, who is a school nurse at Nevis Public Schools.

The hour-long swim practice is led by coach Jodi Sandmeyer, a math/science teacher and career advisor at Nevis School. She has been a coach and volunteer for nearly every sport offered by Special Olympics.

Sandmeyer praised Taylor, saying, "She has grown as a person and really has worked hard to improve her swimming skills. She is a joy to coach each week."

Taylor joined the Bemidji Special Olympics aquatics team last year.

On Feb. 17 this year, she swam at a Bemidji competition and qualified for the statewide contest.

"The people with qualifying times could go on to state, so she did that," Renee said.

The Minnesota Special Olympics was a two-day event, held March 25-26 at the University of St. Thomas. Athletes from all over the state were in attendance.

Taylor was "a little bit" nervous.

As in all Special Olympic sports, athletes are grouped in competition divisions according to ability level, age and gender.

"There was hundreds of people there, but in each heat, they placed," Renee explained. "There were eight lanes going."

Taylor won gold in the 50-meter backstroke, silver in 50-meter freestyle and bronze in the 25-meter freestyle.

"It's fun," she said. "I like freestyle."

Taylor plans to continue swimming and competing.

"I love to swim," she said.

The Becker home borders Straight River, but Taylor much prefers to swim in their indoor pool.

Currently, there is no Special Olympics team in Park Rapids, but Renee plans to change that.

"Hopefully we'll get one started in Park Rapids, then we'll bring our own team," she said. "Most schools, I would say, have a team. I think Park Rapids is big enough to have one."

Renee is working with school district officials to work out the details.

"There's a lot of people on board, it's just getting the ball rolling," she said.

It may be school-sponsored team or a community team. A community team often includes older adults with special needs who live in the area.

All are eligible to compete at the state Special Olympics.

There are more opportunities for a school-sponsored team, however.

"There's lot of different events for the school team," Renee explained. "They would go and compete in numerous events like track and field day, basketball."

Bemidji Special Olympics currently offers eight sports.

Park Rapids used to have a team.

"I worked with the Park Rapids team in the late 80s, early 90s when I was the Area 2 Coordinator," recalled Sandmeyer.

She began volunteering with Bemidji Special Olympics as a sixth grader. In high school, she became area coordinator. In that role, she coached all of the sports and organized area competitions. After starting at Nevis Public School, Sandmeyer coached swimming, equestrian and softball, including at two world games. Due to time constraints, Sandmeyer currently only oversees the aquatics team.

She loves the Special Olympics motto: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

"Through Special Olympics, they have a way to compete. They can advance through state competitions to national to world games. They have a place to excel and be proud of their accomplishments," she said.

There has been a Nevis Special Olympics team for at least 15 years, according to Sandmeyer.

People over the age of 8, both with and without intellectual disabilities, may become Special Olympians.

"We have been having Nevis high school students help with Special Olympics since 2003. They would travel to Bemidji to work with the Bemidji team and gain volunteer hours. Then we added unified sports at Nevis in the past five years. 'Unified' is where the high school students compete on the same basketball teams or relay teams — track, bowling and swimming — with the Special Olympians. That has been going great at Nevis," Sandmeyer said.

The Nevis unified basketball team qualified for the 2017 Minnesota Special Olympics; however, it was the same week as the Nevis Tigers' Minnesota High School League state tournament.

Renee is looking for volunteers who are interested in forming a Park Rapids Special Olympics team. She can be reached at 218-255-0651.