The Athlete & Coach Bond

by Christian Bood

In the pool of life, everyone deserves a support system to keep them afloat.

Someone to guide us through the water when situations get tough or simply cheer us on when we are splashing past the competition. Special Olympics Athlete Christina Principe and Coach Leslie Runnelstover have a unique bond that began in the pool 7 years ago. Together, they have cultivated a relationship that strives to improve one another daily. In telling their stories, they have numerous fond memories including ones that have brought happiness, purpose, and improvement into their lives. Together, Christina and Coach Leslie represent the goal of the Special Olympics as they demonstrate courage, experience joy, share each other’s gifts, and create skills & friendships that will last a lifetime.

Christina grew up in Romania, and moved to the United States on October 2, 1992.  Growing up, she did not have the same opportunity to play sports as she does currently. She said, “In Romania, I didn’t ever ever do anything fun. The only thing is we went outside for like 10 minutes then went back in the house. We didn’t do anything fun, we didn’t go to school, we didn’t play sports”. Christina’s past without sports is unrecognizable now, as she was a four sport athlete in high school, currently working towards gold medals. Besides her notable athleticism, Christina is noticed by her extroverted personality, as she is known as “the cheerleader” since she screams the loudest for her fellow athletes. Currently, Christina finds happiness at the Special Olympics, and enjoys the bond she has with Coach Leslie.

Coach Leslie Runnels-Stover is what any athlete would want in a coach: inclusive, caring, encouraging, and charismatic. Christina admires her persona, as when she was asked who her biggest role model is she turned, pointed, and enthusiastically said “Coach Leslie”, without hesitation. Coach Leslie explains that she “is teaching life skills” and feels blessed to be in a coaching position.  She uses the passion that she has for swimming and the love that she has for her athletes to cultivate a meaningful athletic experience. She explains that her athletes give her purpose, and says “I love my athletes, they bring so much joy.” Her goal is to create friendships that go beyond the boundaries of the pool, which is exactly what she does.

Through numerous car rides, swim practices, and training, Coach Leslie and Christina developed an unbreakable bond.

When asked the highlight of their relationship, Christina said “Getting to see her on Tuesdays and Fridays are my favorite; I like spending time with her.” Coach Leslie says that the connection they have is different; their bond uplifts her spirits and motivates her to be a better person. She stated “our bond makes us better people because I feel like I am being held accountable…it makes me want to grow”. The two of them describe their bond to be sister-like, and would not have it any other way.

They shared many memories together in the Special Olympics community, and recalled some life changing moments. At SOSC Summer games in (year), Christina competed in the hundred butterfly, which was exciting… but not what they were most eager to share. They talked about the Special Olympics community all coming together on the last night for  the big dance. The atmosphere of this event was enjoyable, prompting Leslie to make the statement, “Summer games will change your life.” More than the competing and striving towards personal athletic goals, they find the most excitement in interacting with the SOSC community. Coach Leslie explained that they have both added to their purpose at Special Olympics.

Coach Leslie said that she does not have any specific special event or memory, instead she treasures “seeing athletes improve, reaching their own accomplishments and goals”. Similarly, Christina values supporting other athletes while they strive to reach their goals, screaming “come on athlete, go, you can do it!” Their friendship does not only encourage one another, they find value in the betterment of those around them.

Christina and Coach Leslie have a genuine, joyful friendship in and outside of the pool.

In helping each other stay afloat, they have caused ripple effects, pushing one another beyond where their strokes could take them.

  • Christina Principe

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