Marissa Yessak reached for the worn yellow baton hanging from a rope at the edge of the track on the morning of May 5. Her teammates held the rope, and her coach, Tammy Zimmerman, stood at her side. Yessak moved leisurely down the lane.
The 8-year-old reached her first teammate. She stopped and leaned in as if to say "Hello." Her teammate gives some encouragement, and she continues. As Yessak approached the end of the rope, she hesitated. Her hand slips off the baton. Zimmerman placed Yessak's hand back on the rope and Yessak continued. A few more slips of the hand and steps off the track into the grass, and Yessak completes her race.
“It has taken me a lot to get her to walk along the rope and hang on to the rope,” said Zimmerman, head coach of the Vinton-Shellsburg Special Olympics team. “It’s taken a lot of practice to get her to do that.”
Yessak is participating in this year's Special Olympics for the first time. She has a visual impairment that makes competing in sports difficult, but Special Olympics has given her the opportunity to participate in bowling, basketball and track.
Yessak’s father, Jason, is a teacher and coach in the Dunkerton Community School District, who never thought his daughter would be able to be in sports.
“Just watching him tear up because he never thought his daughter would do that, those kind of things is what you do Special Olympics for,” Zimmerman said. “It’s what you hope to achieve.”
Yessak and the 15 other members of her team from Benton County are preparing to come to Ames on Thursday for the State Summer Games.
Iowa State will host nearly 3,000 athletes from teams across Iowa during the three-day event, according to the Special Olympics Iowa website. The Special Olympics' largest event of the year has been held at Iowa State since the mid-1980s.
All athletes competing in the games have already received medalist honors at regional competitions in events that include swimming, track and field, bocce, cycling, roller skating, soccer, and tennis.
The Summer Games are more than just athletic events. The annual event is kicked off in grand fashion during the opening ceremonies Thursday evening as each team is welcomed by fans crowding into Hilton Coliseum. The ceremony ends with a torch lighting of Olympic caliber.
“The best part is the lighting of the torch," Zimmerman said. "It’s amazing because all these kids — even the older kids — love watching the torch go around.”
A festival that includes a variety of activities, sports clinics, programs promoting health and a dance is scheduled Friday.
Zimmerman said her team has been practicing for the Summer Games since February. The team, made up of students from elementary through high school, meets every Thursday and Saturday for two to four hours of training per week.
“We do a lot of running ... a lot of stretching, which they don’t always like to do,” Zimmerman said. “They don’t always like to do a lot of the running either, but that’s OK. We work with it.”
The coach of nine years said she initially got involved because of her son, who has an intellectual disability and has participated in Special Olympics since he was 8 years old.
For Zimmerman, coaching Special Olympics is personally rewarding. On a team with many young athletes this season, Zimmerman said many of the older athletes have moved on to adult sports.
“I can watch them when we go to state events and see them keep flourishing and keep growing,” Zimmerman said.
After months of training and competition, upon arriving to Ames, Zimmerman tells her team it is time to have fun.
“Don’t take it seriously,” Zimmerman said. “Just go out and do your event and have fun while doing it.”
It is that atmosphere that keeps another Vinton-Shellsburg Special Olympics athlete coming back year after year.
“Special Olympics is a time where you can have fun, be yourself and enjoy life,” said Jimmy Wolfe, a longtime Special Olympian and freshman at Vinton-Shellsburg High School. He has competed at state track and field five times.