By the time Day 2 of the 2019 Summer Games started to wind down Sunday at Cal State Long Beach, a sweet, familiar sound could be heard by anyone within an earshot of many of the 1,100 Special Olympics Southern California athletes in attendance.
Clang… clang… clang… with each step taken. Several competitors, particularly in individual sports, left with multiple medals and ribbons around their neck.
Here were some of the highlights from around the basketball, bocce, flag football, swimming, and track and field competitions:
The Walter Pyramid and Gold Mine Gym played host to 30 teams on Day 1 before the medal-round games moved into the Pyramid on the final day.
The eight gold medalists in their respective divisions were: Santa Clarita Valley Makos (aqua division), Tri-Valley Force (black), San Diego County-El Cajon (blue), South Bay Carson Ballerz (gray), Northern Santa Barbara Spartan (green), Chino Hills Champions (orange), Temecula Valley Kings (pink) and San Gabriel Valley Red Tomahawks (red).
One of the tougher groupings turned out to be the gray division, according to Carson Ballerz coach Cameron Woods. He credited the silver medalist San Diego County Ravens for pushing his team to its limits, as the squads faced off twice over the weekend in equally fierce contests.
Carson faced a halftime deficit before pulling off a comeback in the first contest to win by five, and that was followed up the next day by a one-point thriller with the gold medal on the line.
“I think we just built a new rivalry. Hats off to the Ravens,” he said. “They played a great game the past two days. … They had this point guard that was out of this world. He was pulling up shots like Steph Curry and making it look effortless.
“We just kept preaching to our team defense and rebounding, and that’s what won us the game. It was a nail-biter all the way to the end.”
Also split into eight divisions, 35 teams battled it out on the grass courts. The gold medalists (by division) were: Orange County-Santa Ana #1 (black), Santa Clarita Valley Salt n Peppa Sharks (blue), Northern Santa Barbara Braves (gold), Mighty Menifee Super Stars (gray), Corona-Norco Blue Dragons (green), Kern County High Rollers (orange), San Luis Obispo County Wildcats (purple) and Western San Bernardino Jaguars (red).
Going into the weekend, gold medalist Jeremiah Foss of the Kern County High Rollers understood that his team could only control its own roll. Well, the High Rollers had the lucky touch on their side.
“You just roll the ball,” he said. “If you win, you win; if you lose, that’s OK. It’s just a fun sport and I love it.”
Flag football (RESULTS)
For the first time of the 50-year history of the organization, flag football champions were crowned at Summer Games.
Seven teams were split into two divisions, with the red division fielding four squads and the blue division containing three. By the end of the weekend, the Santa Clarita Valley Sharks (red) and Orange County Storm #1 (blue) went home with gold medals.
Sharks quarterback Shawn Kuder called it “an honor to play football” and was pleased with how he threw the ball.
“My favorite moment was when I threw a deep pass to one of my receivers,” he added.
The pool was a busy venue from start to finish, with 181 individual races and another 10 relay events.
Central Riverside had a pair of stars who combined to win five gold medals. Amar Smith, 42, finished first in the 100-meter backstroke (Division C1), 100-meter freestyle (Division M4) and 25-meter butterfly (Division M2). Samantha Chavez, 31, won her 100- and 200-meter freestyle races (Division F2 in each) and was just 3.46 seconds behind gold medalist Heather McEldowney (San Diego County – Encinitas) in the 25-meter breaststroke.
Swimming featured not only men’s and women’s races, but co-ed events as well. The San Gabriel Valley Mantas won their 4×25-meter freestyle relay (Division M4) with a time of 1:26.99. The team included Stephanie Gonzalo, Felix Harder, Leah Helsabeck and Raymond Ting.
It was one of three gold medals for the 14-year-old Ting, who also won his 50- and 100-meter freestyle races. He added a bronze medal in the 25-meter butterfly.
There were plenty of finishes to decide gold and silver medals by the slimmest of margins. Among them was Bianca Vega’s (Temecula) time of 30.26 seconds in the 25-meter freestyle (Division F09) to edge out Sivan Buchinsky (Calabasas) by 0.18 seconds.
Two men’s races were the photo finishes. Anthony Hernandez (Bellflower) squeaked past Uri Renteria (Inland Empire – Fontana) by 0.02 seconds to win the 25-meter freestyle (Division M01). In the same event (Division M04), Jonathan Burgoa (Orange County Sharks) and Peter Antwan Mouchawar (Santa Clarita Valley) were separated by 0.01 seconds.
It’s that kind of competition, and the year-round opportunities that Special Olympics provides to hone such skill, is “rewarding” for first-year coach Kirsten Ajax (San Diego County) to witness.
“Being able to have an athlete be an athlete because they want to be and can compete,” she said. “They have the drive and the heart and the passion to do it. Too many times in life we put parameters and boxes on people. If you don’t meet the standard then you can’t be on the swim team.
“Well, Special Olympics says, ‘Yes, you can.'”
Last, but certainly not least…
Track and field (RESULTS)
The athletes at the track had their legs churning all weekend, as 120 individual races of various distances in run, walk and assisted walk events were decided. In addition, eight 4×100-meter relay teams in separate divisions won gold medals.
In field events, 28 long jump competitions (16 running long jump and 12 standing long jump groupings), 18 shot put competitions (15 men’s and three women’s groupings) and 25 softball throw competitions (15 men’s and 10 women’s) handed out medals and ribbons.
On the women’s side, South Bay’s team had a pair of athletes who racked up medal after medal.
Nicole Gertner stood out during her individual performances. The 27-year-old nabbed gold (shot put), silver (long jump) and bronze (100 meters) medals. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Athena Leontsinis won a pair of gold medals (100 meters and softball throw) and a silver medal (200 meters). She edged out Krystal Silvia by 2 cm in the softball throw.
Both were then part of the top-finishing 4×100-meter relay South Bay team (Division 1) that crossed the finish line in 1:09.10. The team also included Ali Tobin and Demy Tran.
Also, 15-year-old Destiny Schreurs (East San Gabriel Valley) earned the gold medal in the lone tennis ball throw with a distance of 57 cm.
For athletes like Auna Raquel Pines (Westside), Summer Games serves as a milestone to see how far they’ve come along. She remembers missing out on a middle school cross country meet, which has since served as a defining moment, fueling her passion for running.
“Winning is not the key – it’s trying,” said Pines, now 24. “I kept practicing my running, got into it every day. … Then, a co-worker, in 2015, said, ‘Hey, there’s this thing called Special Olympics. I know you love running races. This is for you.”
That perseverance paid off. She not only earned silver medals in the 4×100-meter relay and 1,500-meter run, but her 17-meter, 73-cm softball throw (Division F07) put a gold medal in her collection.
In men’s action, Evan Williams (Ventura) went 3-for-3 in his pursuit of gold. The 14-year-old won his respective divisions’ 100- and 200-meter races and the shot put (Division M02).
Long Beach teammates Tim Woodall and Thomas Richardson shined, combining for a pair of individual gold medals and a team gold as part of the 4×100-meter (Division 3) relay. The relay team also featured Alexander Deaton and Carlton Goodson, and the four clocked in with a time of 57.16 seconds.
Woodall’s individual success also included a silver medal in the 200 meters (Division 11), finishing just 0.09 seconds behind gold medalist Calvin Ankori (San Diego County).
Special Olympics Southern California interns Alexandra Dickens and Tessa Sechler, and Summer Games media volunteers contributed to this report.