Jose Talavera said he feels the spirit of the Special Olympics is self-improvement – learning sportsmanship, experiencing the camaraderie of friendly competition and pushing the limits of the possible.
The Bethlehem City man has watched his 32-year-old daugher, Joni, twirl on the ice for more than 10 years through the annual statewide figure skating competitions. Her athletic career has taken her to Maryland, Canada and all over Pennsylvania. Of her medals, he said, there are too many to count.
Beyond the Olympic accolades, however, he said her love of sport has, through the years, manifested in myriad ways and been a strong developmental influence.
“The whole sportsmanship concept and rooting for the underdog and helping your competitor – all of these things are new concepts that she wouldn’t have come across if it hadn’t been for athletic competition,” he said.
It all started 20 years ago when Joni laced up her first pair of skates – roller skates. After reaching the peak competitive class in the sport, she was urged toward figure skating and the Winter Games. Although she’s been active – and highly scored – on the ice for more than 10 years, she never stopped exploring all the Special Olympics has to offer.
This year, she’s off to New Jersey for the first time to compete. But the agility she found at the rink won’t be of any use. Joni is going to a national powerlifting competition.
“It’s pretty exciting. It’s another place to see,” said the four-year Olympic lifter. “It’s a whole new world ... scents to smell and sights to see.”
And competitors to crush. Joni’s mother, Maria, said her daughter can dead lift 245 pounds – to the audible shock of those nearby who overheard.
“It gives you more back strength, more stomach strength and more leg strength,” Joni said.
Joni has vied in bench press, squat and dead lift Special Olympics events in Bigler, Clearfield and Villanova. She said she also holds a black belt in karate, which she’s practiced for eight years for exercise, self-defense and “for the fun.”
The 2014 Winter Games are figure skating coach Kacie Hildebrand’s second trip to the War Memorial. Each athlete has their own personal trainer who helps them devise their routines and perfect their technique.
“It’s fun because you get to teach the athletes different things (and watch them) progress through and evolve into bigger things,” she said.
Jose Talavera said it’s the selfless nature of the volunteer coaches that gives the Special Olympics such an impact on its competitors.
“The athletes pick up on a lot of this,” he said.
He said Joni has been working with the severely disabled through Mercy Special Learning Center in Allentown, helping them find their legs on the ice and discover just what they’re capable of.
“They’re nervous,” said Joni, whose job is to help them find their balance and skate without assistance. Jose said they’ve been helping them train every Thursday morning for four years. Although some never learn to skate, he said, they often get better at walking.
“It’s nice to see them skate without the help of walls,” Joni said.
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.