Helping Across the World
Canaan Resident Coaches Special Olympics Athletes in Asia
Missie Rodriguez, of Canaan, celebrates a strike while bowling at Upper Valley Lanes and Games in White River Junction on Thursday. Rodriguez coaches the Upper Valley Hawks Special Olympics Team and recently coached four snowshoers on the U.S. Special Olympic Team in South Korea. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Missie Rodriguez of Canaan, left, gives Tammy Mills of Plainfield, right, a high five after Mills scored a personal best of 142 during their Family Fun bowling league at Upper Valley Lanes and Games in White River Junction. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
White River Junction — Twenty years ago, Missie Rodriguez’ desire to help athletes with mental disabilities brought her to the Upper Valley. Since then, the passion has carried her all over the world.
Rodriguez, a Canaan resident, recently returned from coaching U.S. snowshoers in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
It was the third go-round in the Special Olympics World Games for Rodriguez, who’s in her 19th year as the Dresden Interstate School District’s adaptive physical education teacher. Rodriguez, who runs the Upper Valley Hawks — a program that trains athletes for state Special Olympics competitions in New Hampshire and Vermont — first coached U.S. swimmers in the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Ireland in 2003, then led snowshoers when Boise, Idaho hosted the Winter Games in 2009.
With 110 nations represented, 151 U.S. athletes and 60 American coaching colleagues on hand at this year’s event, the Special Olympics World Games gives Rodriguez more than a world traveling experience.
“It’s a way for me to enhance myself in my profession,” Rodriguez said before bowling with a friend at Upper Valley Lanes & Games earlier this week. “There’s people there from all over my field, not to mention some very talented athletes.”
While Rodriguez’ dedication and resume speak for itself, being accepted to coach at the Games is much more than simply a matter of volunteering. Each event draws thousands of qualified coaching applicants.
“My friends always say, ‘Oh, you’re a lock,’ but that’s not the way it works,” said Rodriguez, who was one of six U.S. snowshoeing coaches. “They’re taking applications from all over the country and there are only 60 coaches that go.”
This year’s Games were from Jan. 29-Feb. 5. After a three-day acclimation stay in the host city of Seoul, Rodriguez and the rest of the U.S. coaching staff made the three-hour journey to the resort village of Pyeongchang, the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“I think we were the guinea pigs, to be honest,” Rodriguez said with a chuckle. “They wanted to see how they would do handling an event this large.”
While the rolling hills and cornfields of Korea weren’t anything out of the ordinary for Rodriguez, one aspect of the landscape struck her as peculiar.
“There were tons and tons of greenhouses, and next to a lot of them were huge fish just hanging out in the wind. I guess that’s how they freeze-dry them,” she noted.
While complete results weren’t available, Rodriguez said her snowshoeing athletes fared quite well.
“We had a lot of podium finishes, a lot of medals,” the coach said. “(U.S. snowshoers) are typically really good and this year was no different.”
While growing up in the upstate New York town of Ellenburg Center, Rodriguez said she made friends with a number of individuals with special needs and didn’t consider their mental disabilities a barricade.
“To me, we were all just friends hanging out,” said Rodriguez, who lettered in soccer, basketball and softball at Northern Adirondack High School. “I always just treated them like people.”
Rodriguez obtained a bachelor’s degree in physical education, with a minor in adaptive physical education, from SUNY-Brockport. While a strong student, she was unable to complete the national teacher exam required to teach at a public school in New York. She repeatedly failed the exam, even after earning a master’s degree at SUNY-Plattsburgh.
“I failed it 33 times,” Rodriguez said. “So I ended up taking these assistants’ jobs and essentially doing the same things as teachers, but not getting paid much. Eventually, I accepted that I probably wasn’t going to pass the test, so I started doing all kinds of research looking at other states, trying to find one where (the national teacher exam) wasn’t required.”
That included New Hampshire, so in 1993 Rodriguez moved in with a close friend in White River Junction and took a part-time job at Hanover’s Storrs Pond Recreation Area.
A year later, an adaptive physical education position opened up at Richmond Middle School and Rodriguez bagged it.
Soon after that, she decided to have a range of tests done and discovered that she had her own set of intellectual challenges.
“I had an average IQ, but I was told I have dyslexic tendencies and have trouble with reading comprehension,” she said. “I imagine that was part of the reason I kept failing (the national teacher exam).”
In 1996, Rodriguez began volunteering with a Hartford-based program that prepared athletes with mental disabilities for the Special Olympics Vermont Winter and Summer Games. She began a similar program at Hanover, eventually merging the pair to form the Upper Valley Hawks.
The Hawks meet weekly for athletic outings, engaging in bowling and basketball in the winter months and track and field and swimming in the spring and summer. They participate in a range of Special Olympics events throughout New Hampshire and Vermont.
Rodriguez is also an ardent participant in annual fundraisers for both states’ Special Olympics organizations, including Penguin Plunges, wintertime swims in the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Champlain. She missed both events while coaching the U.S snowshoeing team this year, but made up for it by jumping into a snowbank in Korea and rasing more than $2,000 in pledges.
“Between the coaching, the coordinating and all the paperwork, it’s a lot of time and commitment, but I do love what I do,” said Rodriguez. “I have a gift of people able to help people and teach them. When I see people (with intellectual disabilities), I don’t look at them and think that they can’t do great things. Just like anyone, with practice they get better and better.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3306.