By Naomi Cahill
Kaylena Mann is no stranger to being on a sports team. The San Fernando Valley native has been a member of a synchronized swimming team, swam for the Vision Swim Club, and participated in triathlons. However, at 16, Mann has been given a title not many her age can say they possess: coach.
She is one of the coaches of the Santa Clarita Valley Bull Sharks, leading both the Tri-Valley track and soccer teams, whose athletes range from 9-60 years old. It is Mann’s second year coaching and she is a part of her school’s independent study program, which allows her to have the time to work with the athletes.
“I love the athletes and like working with the other coaches. I really respect this organization. I could never leave!” Mann said.
Mann’s positive energy and strong interpersonal skills have helped her guide the athletes through drills and plays. Mann is also aware of the challenges of coaching and knows it requires patience and compassion when leading a team, and one must, “be able to think on your feet.” These coaching qualities have become instilled in Mann and have come to her advantage even when not running a team.
Mann’s first Special Olympics event was at a School Games soccer tournament. Although she knew about Special Olympics, she did not anticipate how the event would affect her.
“I knew that it was going to be a good experience, but I never imagined how much I would get out of it,” said Mann. “I loved every moment and realized how much was involved with Special Olympics. It almost brought me to tears the first time I attended an event. It was just so inspiring!”
One memory that stands out was when she came to the aid of an athlete, who was too frightened to enter the playing field because a Pepperidge Farm mascot, dressed as a goldfish, stood at the entrance. Right away, Mann went over to help, and she was able to console the player, guiding him to the field by shielding his eyes. Mann’s act of kindness paid off.
“I saw him later that day, and he did great with his team! I will never forget this,” Mann recalled.
Even when Mann is not with her team, she’s finding ways to give back to her friends. She is currently teaching Special Olympics Tri-Valley track tennis athletes, Alina and Lilia Ford, how to ride a bike. The three met when Mann began coaching the track team. According to Mann, the two athletes learned that she competed in triathlons and wanted to compete as well. Already experienced athletes, Alina and Lilia would be sure to add triathlons to their list of accomplishments once they learned how to ride a bike.
“They were already good swimmers and runners so it made sense,” Mann said.
The group diligently practices riding a bike every Saturday for an hour, and their hard work is paying off. To Mann, witnessing them learn a new skill has been a great experience.
“It’s really amazing to see someone learn a new skill,” she said. “At first, Alina and Lilia couldn’t even balance on the bike. Soon after they could ride around the whole parking lot! It made me so happy to see them smiling. They worked really hard, and it’s nice that I got to help them along the way.
“They have taught me so much! Looking at these athletes makes me realize that anyone is capable of doing what they want to do. Everyone has the potential to be amazing.”
Her involvement in coaching her teams and volunteering for Special Olympics has taught her that everyone has the ability to learn a new skill if they are dedicated and carry a positive attitude. Her coaching and volunteer work have also made her feel personally connected with the athletes. “It is so rewarding, and you will fall in love with Special Olympics. It is one of the best things that I have ever done.”