Few have had as thrilling a 2017 calendar year than Special Olympics Southern California softball athlete Paul Lapre, whose highlights include throwing out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium and a selection for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games.
“All my dreams are finally coming true,” said Paul, who first started competing in 1968.
The uphill climb to get to this point goes beyond just an intellectual disability, however.
When he first started, Paul competed in track and field. To this day, he vividly remembers what Rafer Johnson, the founder of Special Olympics Southern California and a gold medalist at the 1960 Summer Olympics, instilled in him. The movement is bigger than just one person.
“I’m not all about me. I’m about everybody,” Paul said.
He learned a hard lesson along the way, however. Paul battled a drinking problem that nearly disqualified him from competing for good. That’s when he knew a change was necessary.
“I was doing too much,” he said.
With the help of his support system and religious faith, Paul has been sober for 34 years. Other health scares along the way included a stroke.
Yet, thanks in large part to the excitement he gets out of his involvement with Special Olympics, Paul wears the struggles he has overcome like a badge of honor. The obstacles serve as a reminder of how far he’s come.
“I really shouldn’t be playing no more,” Paul added. “But like my coach Chuck says: ‘You don’t know the word can’t or give up because you keep fighting.'”
Through it all, Paul maintains a positive outlook and is grateful for every new experience. In 50 years, he’s participated in more sports than he can keep count, including basketball, floor hockey, softball and swimming.
He looks back on every opportunity, every venue he’s competed in, with wide-eyed joy.
“Back then, I didn’t think [Special Olympics] would be like it is now,” Paul said. “It’s an adrenaline rush, having so much fun and just being with other people with my kind of disabilities and working with other ones. It’s meant so much. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
Currently, he’s a pitcher on the Lakewood Dirtbags softball team that will travel to Seattle and be among the 70 Southern California athletes competing at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games. At 64 years old, Paul will be the oldest participant of the group and he’s affectionately known on his team as “Daddy Paul.”
“This is a longtime dream,” he said, voice cracking with emotion. “It’s the most exciting thing that can happen to a person.”
Paul and his teammates were treated to quite the surprise earlier this year thanks to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Bank of America. What they assumed was a tour of the ballpark turned into a day that included tickets to that night’s game, the opportunity to play some catch on the Dodger Stadium grass, a meet-and-greet with Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson and others, and the honorary “It’s Time for Dodger Baseball!” announcement to the crowd.
That wasn’t all for Paul, though, as he was personally informed by Joc that he would be throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
“I’m throwing out the first pitch… what?” Paul reacted.
As fate would have it, the left-hander delivered a strike.