Editor’s note: REI was honored to be a sponsor of the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games and the presenting sponsor of the Stand Up Paddle Board event.
The Special Olympics USA Games take place every four years, but the 2018 Games, hosted in Seattle July 1-6, were unique—stand up paddle boarding (SUP) made its debut. Despite being a new sport to the USA Games, more than 20 athletes from across the country competed. That number included 19-year-old Mariah Gilbert of Team Washington, who snagged a gold medal in the 3,200-yard event, even though she’s only been paddle boarding for a year.
Founded in 1968, Special Olympics seeks to transform lives through the joy of sport. The organization has 4.9 million athletes in 172 countries and is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities.
Gilbert, of Spokane, Washington, has been an athlete in Special Olympics since seventh grade, competing in events from softball to soccer. Before Special Olympics, she said, “I was shy. I’d go home every day from school, shut me in my room, basically be in tears because I didn’t have any friends, until Special Olympics.” Since meeting teammates and discovering her natural ability at sports, she’s more willing to take on leadership roles.
“I’m so proud,” Team Washington Head Coach Brenda Devine said about Gilbert’s leadership at the USA Games. “Every time someone starts to [give up] we start cheering them back in. Sonya from Texas was out there [paddling] all by herself and [Mariah] goes running out in front of the crowd and got everyone going, ‘Sonya, Sonya!’”
Special Olympics has shaped Gilbert’s life so much, she got the Special Olympics athlete oath tattooed on her left forearm: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Grabbing the gold wasn’t easy—and it started with Devine’s help. Devine, who has 15 years of experience with Special Olympics, is passionate about kayaking, but that isn’t an event in the USA Games. That’s why she transferred her watersports know-how to SUP, a close sister sport. Devine had the idea to start Washington’s first Special Olympics SUP team in February 2017. There wasn’t any funding available and no equipment for the team. But she didn’t let that stop her. Devine just started making fundraising calls.
When Gilbert first tried SUP, she said, “I came out and tried it, and I could not stand up on the board for the life of me.” Under the supervision of Devine, she learned the fundamentals in just a year.
The Cheney, Washington-based team of 14 first started out with dryland training, beginning in the summer of 2017 and continuing through the cold Washington winter. When the weather cleared, the team was able to get on the water. Unfortunately, they only had three boards: two beginner boards and one racing board that wasn’t rated for the bigger athletes on the team. To ensure that each athlete had a full hour on the water they alternated, which meant that the entire team stayed out at the lake for six or seven hours at each practice session.
This May, the team finally managed to get a few more racing boards and wetsuits, and they hit the lakes in Eastern Washington hard—three times a week with an extra day of training at the gym. Then began the next challenge: making their way through area-, district- and state-level competitions to qualify for the USA Games. In the end, four members of the Cheney team and one athlete from Seattle qualified to represent Team Washington in SUP.
All that training and competition paid off, as Gilbert proved on July 2. The course entailed paddling 3,200 yards—circling the Angle Lake course four times. She managed to set a personal record on race day: 21 minutes, 44 seconds.
SUP isn’t all about winning—the sport helps build strength, balance and concentration. “The reason that [SUP] is so important is it’s good exercise and just about anyone can do it—it is ‘stand up paddle,’ but this is Special Olympics and we have rules for people unable to stand,” said MJ Weibling, the technical delegate for the SUP event.
Gilbert notices the transformative nature of the sport, too. She says that she lets go of nerves and concentrates when she’s training or on the board. “I wasn’t thinking—that’s the point. I find a spot on the floor and I stare at it,” Gilbert said about her last training session before the USA Games—when she did battle rope training for an entire hour in preparation for her big day. And when she’s out on the water? “Again, I don’t think. I just do it.”
It’s been a long path to getting SUP recognized as an official USA Games event—beginning in 2010 with a team in Florida. And it’s not stopping with just SUP. Devine says she has a dream of a whole host of watersports in the USA Games. It seems unlikely that anything will stop her from turning that dream into a reality.