Skill? Will to win? It's all of the above for Special Olympics athletes

GRAZ, Austria -- Joe Stewart was tired, cold and still drying out when he heard the knock on his hotel room door after midnight, Sunday morning.

The U.S. unified floor hockey team had returned about 45 minutes earlier from the rainy opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Schladming, Austria, about a two-hour drive from the Games' base in Graz. But it was already past curfew when Stewart opened the door to find Danny Davila beckoning his coach to his room.

"What, are you guys gambling?" Stewart said when he opened Davila's door to find team members Christopher Lopez and Daquan Rivers hunched over a bedside table covered with European coins.

The answer was "no," and for the next several minutes, Stewart was a captive audience to a high-level strategy session, with each position on each team depicted by a coin and the small one-cent piece serving as the puck.

"Now I'm just a regular coach," Stewart said, describing the scene. "Forget Special Olympics. We're just a team going for the gold."

The development did not necessarily surprise the 14-year special education teacher and coach at PS 721M in New York City, where half of his Special Olympics team attend or have attended.

And it certainly is nothing new to World Games athletes who recited the Special Olympics athlete oath Sunday night: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."

At its heart, the pledge emphasizes the importance of trying for one's personal best, though that can sometimes be mistaken among those outside Special Olympics for a lack of competitiveness or even skill level.

"I'm very competitive," said snowshoer Nick Hilton. "I have a streak, it started in 2010. I came in first place and continued that streak until 2017, which is a really long streak for me. I have so many gold medals and I don't want to end my streak."

Throughout the Special Olympics World Games, that desire is heard and seen often. And at levels that can rival athletes in all realms.

Performances from Canadian powerlifter Jackie Barrett have eclipsed national records on the Special Olympics and non-Special Olympics level. Loretta Claiborne, who has competed in six World Games, has twice finished within the top 100 women finishers at the Boston Marathon. And NFL running back Jamaal Charles, a third-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, surprised many in the crowd at the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games opening ceremonies in Los Angeles when he revealed that, at age 10, enrolling in Special Olympics helped him discover talent and a sense of confidence he never knew he had.

Cross-country skier Joe Kaczynski, competing here in his second World Games, is also an accomplished runner, was the star of his high school track team, and trains by running up to 50 miles a week.

"I want to do both -- I want to have a good time and want to do my best," Kaczynski said. "If I can do that with everything I can and with all the training, I can get a medal and be very happy about it."

More than winning, the act of trying one's best at whatever skill level and seeing progress at whatever increments is invaluable, coaches and teachers said.

"For anyone to think it's all recreational, you haven't been to a Special Olympics activity and you simply don't know kids like Nick [Hilton], who's in a higher division and will tell you straight up he's there to win," said Mark Hayes, a physical education teacher at Beekman Center in Lansing, Michigan, where Hilton attends. "Having fun is all part of it, but we work and try to achieve the best we can do. I don't stand for anything less than that. Give me your best and we can take everything else in stride.

"The smallest steps they take forward is a major accomplishment and we don't make light of that."

There is a common scene, a storyline associated with those who have intellectual disabilities, that does not necessarily sit well with some in the Special Olympics community. It is the image of the kid who is put into the game with seconds left in a sporting event and is allowed to score a touchdown or make a basket.

It is heartwarming, to be sure, the sight of the team and everyone in the bleachers cheering wildly. But some quietly point out that usually no one is guarding the kid, and that it bears little resemblance to most Special Olympics competitions.

"There is a monumental difference between that experience and someone who trains six months to compete," U.S. World Games cross-country coach Dave Bregenzer said. "In one instance, it might be the manager of the basketball team who puts the balls away and maybe throws up a shot a few times, not a team member. ...

"A better story is if a kid on the basketball team is a member of the team all year and he's playing at the end of the first half or the middle of the second half ... and just might not be as skilled, but he's still out there. But you rarely see that."

Stewart's unified team is made up of equally matched Special Olympics athletes with non-intellectually disabled partners. He said he makes no distinctions between his mostly teenage players when coaching them, either on a physical or emotional level.

"There is not as big of a gap as people might think," Stewart said.

In fact, he points out that his partner athletes can sometimes use a reminder about the sportsmanship that is so ingrained in Special Olympics athletes.

Stewart said that, as a coach, he must teach his athletes to manage disappointment in the event they don't win, while also instilling the same motivation and confidence in every athlete competing at the highest level.

"For me to get these kids to believe they can beat Russia," he said, "I have to believe it."

Anyone who saw the Bangladesh all-women's unified floor hockey team during its 9-0 loss Saturday against favorite Russia would not have questioned the competitive zeal with which it beat Tunisia 1-0 on Sunday. Nor would anyone have wondered about the level of intensity in Sunday's other contests, which included checks worthy of an ice hockey game, resulting in a few major penalties and several minor injuries.

Other sights seen on Sunday: El Cajon, California, floor hockey player Haley James hunched over a bucket on the sideline, ill with a stomach virus but still playing her shifts. And on the slopes, there was New Zealand alpine skier Nathan Symister, losing a ski during his run and still finishing.

"There is a certain level of dignity involved in competition," Stewart said. "In Special Olympics, just the participation is almost not enough now."

For Stewart's team, which begins competition Monday, the desire to compete is a shared one.

"We're here to have fun and compete," Davila said.

"We're working on making sure everyone is prepared and right-minded and [that we] understand the gravity of what we're doing here," his teammate Birk McCaffery said. "Our driving force is the gold medal. We were saying how the whole flight home, it would be so much better to have gold medals in our suitcases."

Davila smiled.

"I'm going to wear mine all the time," he said.