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Capital Region Special Olympics Champion Leads The Way For People With Down Syndrome

Special Olympics New York, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is launching a new campaign to remedy what it says is a gap in sponsorship for disabled athletes. As WAMC’s Jackie Orchard found out, one local star keeps beating the odds.

Izzy Brinkerhoff Fletcher is a 10-time Special Olympics gold medalist in gymnastics. She has Down syndrome. The 14-year-old Clifton Park resident has been competing for six years.

Fletcher says she loves looking out into a huge stadium and seeing her family cheering her on.

“I bring my whole family,” Fletcher says. “My parents come and watch.”

She says it makes her feel proud. And powerful.

“They shout my name,” Fletcher said.

Watching Fletcher practice walking across a balance beam or hanging from a bar, you might think, “What’s the big deal? I can do that.”

But to understand what makes Fletcher special, you first have to understand her condition.

Dr. Judith Lucas is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Albany Medical Center. She specializes in caring for children and teenagers with developmental disabilities.

“Down Syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality when an individual inherits three copies of the 21st chromosome,” Dr. Lucas said.  

Dr. Lucas says people born with Down syndrome are at risk for a host of medical, developmental, and psychiatric issues as they age.

“Most commonly they experience a significant gross motor delay, which is the major muscles involving movement,” Dr. Lucas said.  

Dr. Lucas says kids with Down syndrome have decreased muscle strength and tone, difficulties with muscle coordination, motor planning, and spatial awareness – all required of a gymnast.

When I meet Fletcher, she gracefully walks across the balance beam, pivoting flawlessly midway to come back and strike a pose. She then skips over to the leveled bars to demonstrate a flexed hang. She pushes herself up with extended legs. All things that Dr. Lucas says should be impossible for her.

“The fact that she’s able to do those things, given her disability, is nothing short of remarkable,” Dr. Lucas said. “Because individuals with Down syndrome often have difficulties coordinating big movements like that. They have difficulties with strength – even climbing up stairs. The have difficulties with fatigability. They get tired easily.”

Dr. Lucas says this is also why Fletcher is only competing against about five others in her age group. Most people with Down syndrome simply cannot handle the rigorous schedule of an athlete.

Dr. Lucas says that in the general population, the average IQ is 100 but the average IQ for someone with Down syndrome is 50 – which translates roughly to reading, writing and doing math at a first to third grade level. It’s harder for them to learn. Which, she says, is another way in which Fletcher is unique.

“Most coaching is verbal,” Dr. Lucas said. “Her ability to understand, interpret, comprehend, and act on verbal directions – it’s truly remarkable.”

Jason Gehlert is a program coordinator for The Down Syndrome Association Hudson Valley. Gehlert says Fletcher’s ability to work out at the gym once a week and practice gymnastics is notable for another reason: attention span.

“You know, [with] Down syndrome, their focus is, you know, you only have that short time and then their focus shifts to something else and so to keep them on track and to maintain that focus is huge,” Gehlert said. 

Gehlert’s daughter has Down syndrome. He says people just aren’t educated about it — even when someone in their family has it. 

“I have a lot of dads who are like, you know, won’t even interact with their kid because of the Down syndrome,” Gehlert said. “Because they think, ‘You know I can’t play ball with my kid,’ you know, ‘they’re not normal,’ and that’s not true. It’s like. It just takes a little extra practice and patience. That’s all it takes.”

Fletcher’s sister Molly plays hockey, her brother Collin is in karate and baseball, and sister McKenzie plays softball. Fletcher says gymnastics has given her something that is just hers in a family of athletes.

But Fletcher can’t seem to get a major corporate sponsor. The first International Special Olympics Games were held in Chicago in 1968. More than 50 years later, Fletcher’s coach, Marlene Michels, says they still feel ignored by big brands.

“It’s a hard thing to swallow knowing that there are big names that sponsored other athletes out there that are the same just like my Izzy that is competing or practicing once a week or all week and then in big competitions and then they’re able to get big sponsors to help them as a personal athlete or their team move on go to competitions, travel, and that’s just what we want for our athletes as well,” Michels said.

Special Olympics New York is starting a new campaign called “Your Brand Here,” hoping to land big name sponsors for their competitors.

Special Olympics is free for the athletes, including the uniforms and practice with a coach, but only during the summer gymnastics season. Michels says outside competitions and extra gym time are added costs for the participants’ families, and not everyone can afford it.

“And then they might not have that opportunity to be able to participate in a sport,” Michels said.

Here at World Class Gymnastics in Clifton Park, which provides its gym for free, coaches like Michels volunteer their time.

“But that, again, is based on the volunteers – coaches – and then the facility or the owners of the facility that allow us to use this,” Michels said.

Coach Michels says the biggest benefit of corporate sponsorship is the opportunity to compete more than once a year at the summer state games – like at nationals and world games.

Dr. Lucas says for many kids with disabilities, the athletic world doesn’t give them many opportunities. That’s unfortunate, because athletics is important for children.

“It gives them opportunity to interact with other same aged peers,” Dr. Lucas said. “It gives them an identity. It gives them, really, a chance to shine at something.”

With or without a sponsor, Michels is just happy Fletcher found the sport.

“It’s really special to watch her grow up and her confidence has definitely improved and just her stamina and her ability to perform and perform bigger skills now has been really amazing to watch. I’m so proud of her,” Michels said.

“I know. I love you too, coach,” Fletcher said.

To learn more about the “Your Brand Here” campaign, visit specialolympics-ny.org.

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