By Peter Tkac
Manuel Prieto is a 19-year-old student at Los Angeles Valley College. He is also a Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC) Athlete who is competing at the 2022 USA Games in his best sport, swimming. Balancing both school and his events can be a challenge, but Manuel is up to the task, showing there is much more to his story outside of the pool.
A veteran of 9 years, Manuel first started participating in Special Olympics events at 10 years old, where he found his passion in the water. “I really enjoy swimming as it’s great exercise. I’m really skilled at it too,” says Manuel. Starting out with both the freestyle and the backstroke, he still competes in these events today, and has improved tremendously through his workout and training regimen. “Preparation can take some time. I go to the gym a lot, as well as the local pool” he explains. These sessions can last up to three hours but vary based on his academic commitments. “My schedule is constantly changing based on what days I go to college and what my classes look like. I have learned not to prioritize one over the other.”
Education is very important to Manuel, as he is currently pursuing a degree in Biology at LAVC with the goal of working in the medical field. This passion stems from a time Manuel remembers his brother being sick, and the desire to want to help him recover. “When my brother was sick, I didn’t know what to do. By becoming a doctor, I would be able to help him out more,” Manuel explains. “I want to help out as many people as I can.”
Not only does Manuel live out his desire to help others through his studies, but in all Special Olympics events, even those in which he is not competing. At event day, Manuel says he loves cheering on both his teammates and competitors, encouraging everyone to do well. “Sportsmanship is very important. It helps motivate me a lot, as well as my team members,” he says. “Before events, I wish them luck, and they wish me the same. They encourage me to swim fast, and I encourage them to swim fast too. It fills me with a lot of happiness to see them do well.”
In his opinion, Manuel thinks this idea of motivating one another is something people need to continue to display. “I feel like we can continue this message of inclusion in our lives by supporting everyone outside of just sports, such as in our houses and work, in order to help motivate people to continue to be great.”
Once the competition ends, Manuel says he loves to stay in touch with both his teammates and competitors through phone calls or texting, saying “my favorite memories of the events are all the friends I made along the way.” Creating these relationships has been Manuel’s favorite part of Special Olympics, and he acknowledges the significance the events have had on his life. “The biggest impact it has made of me so far is that I’m pretty happy with myself – I get to exercise and meet new people.”
As Special Olympics continues to grow and welcome new members, Manuel has some advice for future teammates and rivals. “What I would say to any future athletes that are going to participate in Special Olympics is to not be discouraged by your skill level. There is plenty of room for improvement and that only means you are continue to improve.” Manuel understands this path better than most, saying “when I first started, I didn’t do very well – I didn’t like losing. However, my teammates encouraged me and helped me understand that it is okay to lose. This was just a step for me doing even better.”
As he prepares for the USA Games, Manuel admits he does have some pre-competition butterflies, but is determined to stay focused and to enjoy the events. “I am very excited, but a little bit worried at the same time. However, I am sure I will do great. I am sure I will do my best.” Anyone who knows Manuel knows this is exactly what he will do, and that he will encourage others to do the same. People who have a passion to help others often make the greatest impact on the world, and Manuel hopes to do exactly that.