By Melanie Barrios
If you’re from San Luis Obispo County or have been involved with Special Olympics, chances are you have heard about the Blankenburg family and their extraordinary journey. Dick and Maxine Blankenburg started Special Olympics San Luis Obispo County in 1969, and their son Rick is one of the very first athletes to participate in California. Today, every generation of the Blankenburg family has participated in one way or another to help keep the Special Olympics spirit alive.
Cindy Blankenburg has been with Special Olympics Southern California since its beginning with her parents, Dick and Maxine. Cindy is proud of how Special Olympics has impacted so many people. When Special Olympics was first formed in San Luis Obispo, the county only had four athletes, and today, 1,419 athletes in the county participate year-round.
“We’re leaving a legacy, not just us, but everyone who is participating, including volunteers, staff, and family members. It’s a family affair. It gets in your blood,” Cindy states. The family has made it a top priority never to miss an event and drop everything to make sure that they are present to show support for Rick, friends, and athletes.
“We have seen so many athletes become better people because of the opportunities Special Olympics has provided for them,” said Cindy. It’s just been a great opportunity for all of us to grow and to be better people.”
Growing up, Rick wasn’t supposed to be able to waterski, ride a bike, or play gymnastics, but Maxine figured if her other kids could do physical activities, why couldn’t he? At just eight years old, Rick attended the Western Regional Special Olympics, very first games held in California. The Games were held at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and it’s a moment that their father holds very dear to his heart. He was proud to see his son compete in the same place the Olympians competed. Today, Rick is a world champion athlete in gymnastics and has competed in gymnastics at two Special Olympics World Games.
“He [Dick] would always like to share with other parents, ‘Look, Special Olympics did that for our family. Special Olympics could do that for your family. Special Olympics has done that for my child, and it can help your family’,” said Cindy about her father. “We just like to share those types of stories with other people.” In return, Rick has made sure to interact with the other athletes and help the younger ones any way he can, even if it’s just to give words of encouragement.
One of Cindy’s favorite parts of Special Olympics are the opening ceremonies. They give the athletes their time to shine and show the world what they can do when given the chance. “When the athletes parade in and they high five with the [officers], it’s just pure joy you see on their faces. That is the best thing. They are so excited to participate, and that is the best thing. They are looking forward to having that day to themselves. It’s something they worked really hard for, and they are getting the recognition.”
Like so many, the pandemic has forced Rick to adjust to a whole new routine, but with his family’s support, he is still staying active. He’s been keeping active by completing the Healthy Lifestyle Challenge, going for walks, and gardening. “Getting outside, getting some sunshine, getting fresh air is much better than sitting inside and watching tv,” said Cindy. “It’s good for your mind, good for your body…”
Cindy and Rick look forward to the day where everyone can practice and compete again. It’s that involvement that means so much to them and has brought acceptance, joy, and validation to their lives. Their mother’s involvement with Special Olympics has left behind a legacy in San Luis Obispo County that is forevermore remembered every year with the “Maxine Blankenburg Most Inspirational Athlete.”
“She was an inspiration to a lot of people,” says Cindy. “A lot of people called her mom, and a lot of people looked up to her. She set an example for other parents and just was always there if a parent needed help. Part of her mission in life was to share that just because you have a child with special needs, it doesn’t mean that they can’t do what other children can do.”