17 Feb 19
Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt –– Special Olympics athletes’ motto
Bocce ball in right hand, a determined, focused look on her face, Maya Rivera takes a few seconds to contemplate strategy. One of her coach-dad’s bocce balls is right now sitting closest to the pallina more than 40 feet away. The 21-year-old St. Paul native takes a step and underhands her ball with just the right amount of force. Whack! She knocks her father’s ball away. Her ball is now in the winning position.
“It’s your turn, dad,” she says. I thought I detected a note of one-upmanship in her demure voice, but I may be wrong.
The last time I saw Maya was quite a few years ago at the downtown skyway Y. The little girl with the pigtails would play with balls and try shooting hoops with her doting dad, Ken Rivera, before she would head to swimming lessons with her mother. Her dad would then join us gym rats for several pickup games.
Now that little girl with the pigtails is a young lady and one of only five athletes selected from Minnesota to take part in the Special Olympics World Games next month in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. The 200-member U.S. team will join more than 7,000 athletes from 170 countries in the 24 summer sports competition. Maya’s 16-year-old sister, Serafina, will be among the 20,000 volunteers at the games.
“I’m excited about it,” Maya told me last week before we headed to the basement of Half Time Rec, an Irish sports bar in the Como area, to practice with her father. Say what? The bar has two indoor bocce courts and runs a winter league.
The other athletes from the state are James Bergeron, St. Paul, who will compete in bowling; Austin Hackley, Woodbury, athletics; Christopher Tucker, Minneapolis, athletics; and Kayla Possai, Coleraine, swimming.
There is something special about the Special Olympics. What began as an outdoor activity for children and adults with intellectual disabilities in the back yard of the late founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s Maryland home more than five decades ago has mushroomed into a widely attended and viewed international event. The stories and efforts of these athletes will inspire the most unmotivated and move the hardest of hearts. Well, they inspire and move me.
Maya Rivera, who was born with Down syndrome, has been part of the Special Olympics family for the past 10 years, taking part in swimming, track and field, and downhill skiing. Her uncle, a ski instructor in Colorado, also helped teach her.
Maya Rivera and her father, Ken, practice bocce ball in the basement of Half Time Rec in St. Paul on Feb. 13, 2019. Rivera, 21, is one of only five athletes selected from Minnesota to take part in the Special Olympics World Games next month in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
“Sometimes, parents of special-needs children are the greatest obstacles to their progress,” said Ken Rivera, who acknowledged apprehension with having Maya try skiing at first. Now his daughter is able to ski on some of the more challenging ski slopes. “You realize that they just want to try to do what everyone else is doing.”
Maya Rivera added bocce to her sports activities about six years ago and has won state tournaments as part of a regional bocce team.
A simple game of strategy and skill, bocce is similar to lawn bowling and curling. The object of the game is for an individual, doubles or team to win points by getting their four allotted balls closest to the pallina — the smallest ball.
Rivera will compete in all three categories.
Her father and her mother, Deborah Rathman, run Rivera Architects, a St. Paul-based firm. Ken Rivera grew up on St. Paul’s west side and played hoops for Archbishop Brady High School, which closed in 1991. He specializes in the construction of assisted-living, memory-care and nursing facilities.
Rathman, who got the architect bug watching her parents build a home while growing up in the Sleepy Eye-New Ulm area, specializes in the construction and design of educational facilities, including charter schools.
The couple met while they were University of Minnesota architectural students taking part in a study trip to China.
Maya Rivera and her father, Ken, practice bocce ball in the basement of Half Time Rec in St. Paul, Feb. 13, 2019. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Finding a place to practice bocce indoors during the winter proved almost impossible. Ken Rivera called local universities and indoor sports facilities with artificial turf to see whether he could carve out some time for his daughter.
“Those I was able to contact said all their time was already reserved, or just said no,” Ken Rivera recalled. “The others never responded. “
Then he was told about Half Time Rec. He had never heard of the place. Bocce courts inside a watering hole? But he called.
“Sure, come on down,” replied Julie Gabriel, the bar’s co-owner. At first, Gabriel had no idea an Olympian was practicing in her joint.
“We just thought it was a little girl with her parents coming down on Saturday morning,” Gabriel recalled. “They are just the sweetest family. It’s just awesome, and we are super excited about it.”
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Rathman could not be prouder of her daughter’s selection. There are an estimated 8,000 Special Olympics athletes in Minnesota, and about a half million participants nationwide. Her daughter also works with Discovery Club, a St. Paul schools’ after-school program, and was recently selected to take part in a career-oriented curriculum program at Bethel University for people with intellectual disabilities.
“What you want for any child is for them to be doing well and functioning well and happy with life,” she said. “If nothing else, you want your child to be happy with who they are and what they do and that there are no limits with what they can do in life.”
Go Maya, go Maya ….