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Nicole Kato

Hawaii’s Most Special Athletes

Special Olympics is special because of the extra challenges the athletes must overcome. Hawaii’s best are preparing for nationals in New Jersey

While the world was coming off its Winter Olympics high, here in Hawaii 12 amazing athletes are preparing for Special Olympics 2014 USA National Games, an eight-day contest (June 14-21) in New Jersey.

Sixteen events are on the agenda: aquatics, bowling, powerlifting, volleyball, athletics, cycling, soccer, baseball, flag football, softball, basketball, golf, tennis, bocce (pronounced “bochi” or “bachi”), gymnastics and a triathlon.

These 12 athletes, aka Team Hawaii or Hui O Hawaii, were chosen from 3,200 participants statewide and will represent Special Olympics Hawaii at the national games. They include Oahu’s Raymatthew Akaka (track and field, athletics), Marcelino Galdones (bocce), Lesley Ann “Annie” Hamm (bocce), Nicole Inouye (swimming, aquatics), Shannon Nakamoto (bocce), Reyse Sakima (track and field, athletics), Blane Sardinha (bocce) and Michelle Shanahan (swimming, aquatics); Hawaii Island’s Kalani Gonsalves (track and field, athletics) and Daylan Toribio (track and field, athletics); and Maui’s Nikilani Rojas (swimming, aquatics) and Fae Torres (swimming, aquatics).

The national games feature more than 3,500 competitors from all over the country. Athletes will perform at Princeton University, Rider University, The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), Mercer County Park, Brunswick Zone-Carolier, The Hun School, The Lawrenceville School, Peddie School, Prudential Center and Sun National Bank Center.

Bocce competitor Hamm says it’s a dream come true to compete in the national games.

“I noticed that I’m better at bocce than I am at regular bowling,” admits the 25-year-old. “I was 14 when I started, and I’ve been doing it for about 11 years.”

Eleven years is a long time to compete in a sport, and Hamm definitely takes it seriously. When she has free time or days off from work, she heads to 24 Hour Fitness to lift weights and stay in shape, and also practices bocce each Saturday.

“I get more driven each time I compete,” she says. “I’m not really a competitive person, but I like the challenge.”

Hamm’s partner in the bocce event is Nakamoto, who has gone to the national games once before. This will be Hamm’s first trip as a Special Olympics athlete.

Nakamoto has been competing since 2009, and the 25-year-old will make her first trip to nationals in the bocce event. She attended the Winter Games in 2005 for speed skating.

“It’s been a good experience, and they’re really supportive,” Hamm adds of the local organization. “I’m learning how to be a team player, and it’s helped my social skills, as well. I’ve become good friends with some of the other athletes.”

Inouye (15) and Shanahan (29) also head to New Jersey for the swimming competition. This is Inouye’s fifth year competing with Special Olympics Hawaii, and she makes her first trip to the upcoming national games. She has been swimming since the age of 5, and at her current age she has trained hard to become the best athlete she can be.

She credits much of her training success to the support of Special Olympics Hawaii.

“They help to push myself even farther,” she says, “to push myself to the limits.”

Shanahan also is competing in swimming, and has been with Special Olympics Hawaii since she graduated from Moanalua High School in 2004.

According to mom Susan, Shanahan always has loved swimming, and this trip will be her first big adventure all by herself.

“She fits in really well with this family,” Susan adds of Special Olympics Hawaii. “And that’s important, to feel like you fit in.”

Says Special Olympics Hawaii’s vice president of sports Dan Epstein: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel beyond Hawaii and represent the state. It’s an amazing opportunity for their families, too, and we’re still looking for financial support for the team. Any support from the community is greatly appreciated.”

According to Special Olympics Hawaii, the cost for sending one athlete to the national games is more than $2,500, and the organization is accepting tax-deductible donations at specialolympicshawaii.org to help with costs. (Elite Parking also has stepped up as a sponsor to help the team with travel expenses.)

Those who aren’t able to make a monetary donation can donate their extra Hawaiian Miles, thanks to a partnership with Hawaiian Airlines. The miles will help fly these amazing athletes to the competitions.

Team Hawaii has all-team (including Neighbor Island athletes) training May 3-4, and leaves for nationals June 13, and it seems all team members are more than elated. Coaches, staff, family and competitors have high hopes for the upcoming games and have been training hard. They bring to the table numerous skills and talents, as well as more than enough aloha spirit to share.

nkato@midweek.com

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