An interview with Special Olympics athletes Kalani Gonsalves, 24, of Hilo and Daylan Toribio, 21, of Keaau and their coach David Baldwin was like a track and field meet.
When a question was asked, both athletes sprang from the blocks to answer, their words tripping over one another. Other times, one started to answer, then the other grabbed the baton to finish the thought. Sometimes their answers were too short, as if they were preparing for the shot put and the metal ball slipped from their hands. Baldwin, who watched and listened intently, always coaxed them to give more.
“Is participating in the Special Olympics very important to you?” an interviewer asked.
“Yeah,” Gonsalves said.
Baldwin, also the Hilo High School football coach, jumped in: “Why?”
“Because you get to make new friends,” Gonsalves replied.
Toribio snagged the baton: “Because you get to have fun, have a good time.”
One couldn’t blame them for being in a competitive mode because they were set to enter the Hilo High weight room as they continued preparing for the Special Olympics 2014 USA Games, which start Saturday in New Jersey.
They are the only Big Islanders on the Hawaii team of 12 that will compete in track and field, bocce and swimming, among 3,500 athletes. Gonsalves will battle in the 400- and 800-meter runs, while Toribio will do the 100 and 200. Both are in the 400 relay and the shot put. Baldwin will join them as the head coach of the squad.
Gonsalves and Toribio didn’t earn the New Jersey trip by winning particular races. They were nominated by Lisa Pana, Special Olympics’ East Hawaii director, and then selected based on the length of their participation in Special Olympics — 12 years for Gonsalves and five for Toribio — as well as their good character, Baldwin said.
But one shouldn’t doubt their hard work and competitive fire, along with Baldwin’s coaxing, got them to New Jersey.
Despite the fact they work and have other pursuits, for six months they’ve spent about two hours, four to six days a week, with Baldwin inside the Hilo High dungeon and on the track strengthening their leg muscles and perfecting their form and strategy.
Their drive to win was displayed April 12 at the Special Olympics East Hawaii area games at Keaau High School. After the pageantry at the start when Gonsalves and Toribio were spotlighted, the two appeared eager, as in the interview, to slip into the blocks and start their races. They went off alone to stretch, marching down the track side by side, raising their legs high and slowly.
Toribio ran first in the 100 meters. The stocky sprinter rumbled down the track with his arms fixed at 90-degree angles churning at his sides and his knees held high, as Baldwin taught, to take first. Later, he sauntered down the track with a grin as his blue first-place ribbon flapped against his chest. He greeted and chatted with friends along the way like he was on a victory lap. But they were probably drawn to him for another reason.
“Daylan is always positive,” Baldwin said. “He’s always reinforcing his teammates and … telling them, ‘Good job.’”
Gonsalves’ first event was the 800-meter run. He faced Louie Perry III, a muscular, ponytailed thoroughbred who won three gold medals at the 2011 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. Although Gonsalves has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which hurts his memory, the reputation of Perry, a Pahoa High School grad, was burned in his mind.
Gonsalves took off like a rocket. His head tilted back as if he was running against a strong wind, Gonsalves led Perry by one car length for nearly 400 meters. But near the end of the lap Gonsalves took his foot off the gas and glanced over his shoulder.
“I was looking back and the guy, Louie, he just caught me,” Gonsalves said. “He come by my side and just cut in front of me.”
Gonsalves finished second to Perry but it was a rare challenge to the world champ, Baldwin said. The coach, smiling widely, grabbed Gonsalves afterward.
“You had that race,” Baldwin said to Gonsalves. “I told him, ‘You pushed (Perry) to the edge and all we’re going to get from here is better.’”
Despite the encouragement, Gonsalves didn’t take a “victory lap.” The memory of the race lingered with Gonsalves as the normally upbeat, social man walked slowly down the track alone without smiling. But he bounced back to win the 400 meters and he “wowed” his mother.
“He really grew from last year’s area games,” said Michelle Perreira, who cried when she heard of her son’s selection in the fall. “All the effort and training he has done with coach Baldwin really, really paid off for him.”
Membership has its privileges
Gonsalves’ and Toribio’s devotion to Special Olympics is no surprise considering what it offers them. With their disabilities, they confront invisible challengers and hurdles they may never conquer.
Gonsalves was diagnosed with ADHD at 6. It’s like his feet are not planted in the present, his thoughts and attention racing in all directions. He has trouble remembering something said a minute ago while he can recall something spoken one month ago, Perreira said. Since his diagnosis, he’s had one-on-one instruction in school including speech therapy to help him talk more like he runs — in long, graceful strides.
“There’s a lot of repetition,” Perreira said. “Anyone who has to talk with him or work with him, they would need to understand, he’s going to forget. He’s going to have to be reminded a million times.”
Because of his disability, she said, the speedster may never chase down that prize most young men covet — a driver’s license — or live completely independently.
But Special Olympics provides a refuge from those invisible challenges. There are rivals to outrun, heights to rise above, heavy burdens to throw, lines to step across and, in the process, they may attain confidence to help them gain ground on their disabilities.
And within that refuge is a team that works against those invisible rivals. Gonsalves played parks and recreation sports but ADHD hindered him, Perreira said. When he joined Special Olympics at 9 he met coaches who understood his disability and how to help him have success.
Baldwin started in Special Olympics five years ago partly because his niece participates. He said he treats Gonsalves and Toribio no differently than his football players. The Vikings train alongside the two Special Olympics stars in the weight room.
Just as Baldwin learned sign language to communicate with his hearing impaired niece, he learned about Gonsalves’ disability and how to reach him, Perreira said. And to help ensure his lessons don’t bolt from Gonsalves’ mind, Baldwin shares the lessons with Perreira so she can repeat them at home. In the process, Baldwin’s learned to slow his pace and gained a greater appreciation for his job.
“It’s had a tremendous impact,” said Baldwin, who became the head coach six months ago. “It’s increased my encouragement, it’s increased my patience, my tolerance, my understanding and it’s taught me first and foremost to enjoy myself and to understand that each and every athlete … I coach is unique.”
Like the coaches, the athletes are part of the team working against the invisible rivals. Gonsalves and Toribio compete alongside others with similar struggles and abilities so they can relate, sympathize and ultimately uplift one another.
Several times during the April races athletes struggled. Like Gonsalves and Toribio in their interview, the athletes needed coaxing. It was then that other racers and spectators cheered louder until the athletes, some with big smiles, dug deeper and picked up their paces.
“It doesn’t matter who crosses the line first,” Perreira said. “It’s just about helping them all get across … and it’s a wonderful thing.”
Perreira partly credits Special Olympics with helping her son to become a proud man who is employed and has other hobbies such as hula.
“Nothing can weigh him down,” Perreira said. “He knows that he can accomplish things.”
This confidence shined brightly before the area games. A beaming Gonsalves and Toribio led the parade of athletes down the track, lifting their arms above their heads triumphantly and clapping their hands. Gonsalves ran down a line of volunteers slapping their hands.
“It was fun because they were honoring us,” Gonsalves said.
Toribio took the baton: “Because we are going to New Jersey.”