Wanting To Be Like Everyone Else – Achieving Dreams

Photo above by Annie Pittman, the Review Atlas

Editor’s Note: Teri Parks of Kirkwood, parent of athlete Tamara, was a finalist in the 2014 Share Your Story contest. This is her story:

Tamara just wanted to be like everyone else.  She wanted to have friends and a boyfriend.  She wanted to do everyday things just like everyone else.  She wanted more than anything to play sports.

Diagnosed as a toddler with “pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified” and later autism, Tamara became a “pioneer” in her community.  Coming from a small town with no special needs children at that time, the community had to be educated about the autism spectrum. Her teachers learned new ways to teach, her schoolmates learned how to deal with her “abnormal behavior” and Tamara had to learn how to live without being destructive to herself.

Tamara Parks
Tamara Parks

In third and fourth grade, Tamara participated in basketball with the local recreation council and in softball with the Junior Sheriffs League. She learned at a slower pace than others or seemed to not understand the game, thus she saw very little playing time. She was always the last one to go in or never getting to play at all. A time that should have been about learning turned into very competitive play and harsh words from other families. Although we could see the potential in Tamara, we were horrified by parents telling us it wasn’t fair that Tamara playing was taking time away from their child playing. Unwilling to accept the ignorance of such parents, we decided to pull Tamara from team sports and focus on other “individual” things that she could benefit from – singing, swimming and horseback riding.

Tamara grew up in the shadow of watching her older sister, Katrina, have everything she had wanted for herself. She watched as Katrina had friends to hang out with, dated and played sports all throughout her junior high and high school years. She watched without understanding why. Tamara knew she had autism and that made her “special,” but didn’t understand why she couldn’t fulfill her dreams.

For seven years, Tamara was “hauled around” to volleyball and basketball games as well as track and field events to watch Katrina compete. She learned to sit patiently through the games and eventually how to “cheer” for her school’s team. She watched her sister’s volleyball team go undefeated to the semi-sectional games. She watched the basketball team struggle and not achieve any sort of honors.  She watched as Katrina competed individually and as a team in track, bringing home ribbons and medals. And, she watched bullying occur between Katrina and her teammates.

No one would understand at the time what these seemingly insignificant events in Tamara’s life would prepare her for. While it appeared that Tamara wasn’t paying attention, she absorbed many of the skills and rules that would accelerate her learning these sports when she joined Special Olympics. She started to learn about winning, about being gracious when losing and about building up teammates instead of tearing them down – all the qualities she would build upon in Special Olympics.

Tamara Parks plays basketball with herWarren County Special Olympics team.
Tamara Parks plays basketball with herWarren County Special Olympics team.

Everything changed for Tamara her sophomore year in high school. Thanks to the persistence of her best friend Kaylee, Tamara was asked to join a high school basketball team with Special Olympics. It was a new program that was being formed in our Area. As parents, we weren’t sure what we would be getting into if we agreed, so we took time to think about this decision before jumping right in. Were we willing to subject Tamara, and ourselves, to the same hurt that we had endured before? She hadn’t played in so long, would she still even want to play? Should our fears keep her from her dreams? We wound up leaping out in faith and signed her up for the team.

The first practice we went to, Tamara immediately had “friends” gravitating towards her. The families reached out to us to make us feel welcome. She had a coach who was patient and willing to work with her. During her first basketball practice, she was stealing balls. And she proved she had an 80 percent shooting average. Her coach built on that skill, designing team plays around her proficiency and that first year, the Warren County Falcons high school team went to state and came home with a gold medal and state championship trophy!

Shortly after starting basketball, I was approached by our SOAD wanting to know if Tamara would like to be on the swim team. I said she would LOVE to do it. Tamara basically taught herself to swim from a very young age. We would go to the local YMCA several times a week. She taught herself to swim under water. She was constantly going to the bottom of a 12-foot pool and staying down there for several moments – enough to panic any mother – but she would come up when she needed air. We called her our “guppy.” When she became a teen, she started learning the swim strokes by watching the Olympics on TV and other people swimming at the YMCA. She also started participating in a swim camp put on by the YMCA each summer. By the time she joined the Special Olympics swim team, she was an accomplished swimmer in freestyle and backstroke.

Tamara has been blessed over the past four years and has grown as an athlete, a teammate and a friend.  She competes in five sports:  basketball, aquatics, athletics, bowling and volleyball. She would love to play softball too, but she needs that short rest after Summer Games before starting back up again. She has started to come out of her shell, and she has enjoyed her new family. She has earned  17 district gold, 4 district silver, 2 district bronze, 1 sectional silver, 3 state gold, 3 state silver and 4 state bronze medals to date. But nothing has compared to what she accomplished within the last year – a chance to realize a dream of going to Nationals.

Tamara swims with a cup on her forehead during training camp to learn not to move her head still.
Tamara swims with a cup on her forehead during training camp to learn not to move her head.

In November 2013, Tamara was announced as a member of Team Illinois for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games competing in aquatics. Although she didn’t show it, you could tell that Tamara took pride in the fact that she was allowed to “shine” for her skills and abilities, unlike in the past. She felt HONORED to be chosen for the team.

At orientation day, the team determined what strokes and races each member would participate in. I informed her coach that she was willing to do whatever it took to help the team, even if that meant learning something new. We left knowing Tamara would swim the 50-meter freestyle, the 25-meter breaststroke, the 25-meter butterfly and the 4×25-meter medley relay (swimming the butterfly stroke).  That meant Tamara had to learn three new things:  the butterfly, the breaststroke and the medley relay.  She had her work cut out for her, and she had to go way out of her comfort zone, overcome a lot of obstacles, and break down barriers!

In January, she started swimming for endurance. She started swimming 500 meters in two hours. She was in the pool 4-6 times a week for two hours a day. In February, she started learning the breast stroke.   After the first week, I was ready to call her coach and tell her that it wasn’t going to come together, but Tamara kept after it, and she had the stroke MASTERED in 25 days. In March, she worked on the butterfly stroke. She had attended a swim camp in September 2013 in which U.S. Olympian Tyler McGill taught the butterfly. She struggled to learn it at that camp, but within two days six months later, she remembered everything she had learned and mastered the butterfly stroke as well. She continued to work hard up until her training camp with her USA Games teammates in April. She swam the butterfly so well, her coaches petitioned to have her race pushed up to the 50-meter race. By June, she was swimming 950 meters in less than an hour. Perseverance, dedication and determination prevailed.

Tamara's grandparents, Leah and Ron, and mother, Teri, cheer her on at USA Games.
Tamara’s grandparents, Leah and Ron, and mother, Teri, cheer her on at USA Games.

Tamara’s experience around the USA Games was an incredible experience for her. Before leaving for the USA Games, she participated in the Torch Run as a torch bearer at the local level and with her USA Games teammates at the state Summer Games.  Her biggest honor before going to New Jersey was being one of the Special Olympics flag bearers during the Opening Ceremony at Summer Games.

In New Jersey, she had the opportunity to swim at the prestigious DeNuzio Pool at Princeton University.   Swimming eight races in four events, we were hopeful Tamara would medal at least once, but really didn’t care what she brought home as long as it was deserving of the hard work she had accomplished over the previous six months. Tamara earned a team gold medal in the 4×25-meter medley relay and a bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle. She earned a silver medal in the 50-meter butterfly, competing in the fastest division of that stroke. But Tamara’s greatest accomplishment was in the 25-meter breaststroke, beating her opponent in the fastest division by more than 8 seconds, earning her a gold medal (and unofficially a national champion status).

This adventure in her life taught her about discipline, overcoming obstacles, pushing forward and accomplishing what others didn’t believe she could do. She became a team leader and instructor for her swim team back home. She has inspired her teammates to try new things. She made public appearances before and after the USA Games with her head held high – displaying grace, poise and humility instead of being shy and reserved. But most of all, she has INSPIRED everyone – athletes, coaches, parents and fans – who hears her story!

Tamara celebrates one of her wins at USA Games.
Tamara celebrates one of her wins at USA Games.

Her friendships at Special Olympics have been amazing. She was ACCEPTED by everyone from the first minute she stepped through the doors and has made many friendships along the way on the local, district, state and national levels. She has “best friends.”  She goes on dates, attended her high school homecomings and proms, and has even become “engaged” to her boyfriend of three years. She has been given the opportunity to do what everyone else gets to do – to achieve her dreams no matter how big or small. We love our Special Olympics family in so many ways for the opportunities that have been opened up for Tamara.

Special Olympics is truly a family affair as we help Tamara achieve her dreams.  I have learned to step out of my comfort zone, just as the athletes step out of theirs at each practice or event, to become a coach in four sports and scorekeeper in three sports.  (Did I mention I have never played sports before except in P.E. class almost 30 years ago?) Tamara’s sister became a coach. Grandma Leah and Grandpa Ron have volunteered at district events, are huge supporters and carry the title of “honorary” grandparents to those athletes who do not have families to support them. And since USA Games, Grandma Leah has been inspired to step out of her comfort zone and become an assistant volleyball coach at the age of 68! We all love Special Olympics so much that we talk about it everywhere we go!

Special Olympics is our lives, our passion, our mission and we are so blessed to be a part of something so uplifting, motivating, and inspiring! EACH athlete we meet INSPIRES us in ways we never thought possible.

But the most inspirational thing we have witnessed is when someone tells Tamara she can’t do something, she doesn’t just say “Yes, I can,” she shows them!