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Upper Valley Hawks Special Olympics Program Turns 20

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Rose Kerrigan, of White River Junction, Vt., swims through the water at CCBA's Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. When it comes to important moments, Kerrigan thinks back to the bronze medal she won in the 100 meters in swimming. The medal was important not because it was her first, but because her family was there to watch. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Walter Mosenthal, of Norwich, Vt., stretches after a run at the Hanover High School track on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. "Not everyone would recognize someone with special needs," Mosenthal said. But in the Hawks he has found a second family. Mosenthal thinks back to when he invited the team over to his house after he graduated high school. His teammates being there showed him how much they cared. "It wasn't just for the athletics. We're not just team players, we're friends," Mosenthal said. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Bo Harron of West Hartford, Vt., drives towards the basket at Hartford High School on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. Harron's standout moment in Special Olympics has been competing in the Torch Run. Harron has been doing the run since it was only two athletes participating and has watched it grow into a community event. On the morning of the run Hartford closes its town offices, people line the streets and Harron feels like he's part of something big, something good for the community. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Zach Hurd, of White River Junction, Vt., stands for a portrait at the White River School gymnasium on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. Hurd describes himself as a team leader on the court. "I should probably be reflecting on my own work," he says of the more difficult games. "But I'm more worried about what everyone else is doing." His mother Suzanne describes him as a good teammate, but also a good opponent, saying how he will always stop the game when there's an injury and shake hands with players that make a basket. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Mary Thomas, of White River Junction, Vt., leaps through the air as she practices her running long jump at Hanover High School on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. Special Olympics has helped Thomas grow with her disability. "It's helped out with me being better than your disability," Thomas said. After seven years with the Hawks, she finds she is more active and friendlier with others. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Rose Kerrigan stands for a portrait in the pool at CCBA's witherell Recreation Center, in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. Kerrigan, who has been competing in Special Olympics for about eight years, competes in basketball, bowling, snowshoeing and swimming. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Walter Mosenthal, of Norwich, Vt., runs the Hanover High School track on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. "When you have someone that goes ahead of you, they help pull you along to improve," Mosenthal said. His teammates and his competitors fulfill this role. Mosenthal competes in the 800 dash, 400 dash, 1500 meter runs, the running javelin and running long jump in addition to snowshoeing and basketball. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Bo Harron of West Hartford, Vt., is photographed in a portrait at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, July 31, 2018. Before he began participating in Special Olympics, Harron would often high-five his friends on opposing teams when they made a basket. After a teammate told him he couldn't be happy for them, he walked off the court. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Zach Hurd, of White River Junction, Vt., throws for a basket at the White River School gymnasium, in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. Before joining the Upper Valley Hawks, Hurd competed with Royalton High School's basketball team for about three years. He finds the Hawks to be a better fit for him in skill level. Hurd competes in basketball, bowling and track. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Hawks athlete Mary Thomas, of White River Junction, Vt., stands for a portrait at Hanover High School on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. When she was 16, Thomas was introduced to the Upper Valley Hawks by a friend and has enjoyed meeting new people through the team, making new friends and learning about sportsmanship. Thomas competes in track, bowling and basketball. (Valley News - August Frank) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writers
Sunday, September 23, 2018

White River Junction — Walter Mosenthal was 13 when he began snowshoe racing with the Upper Valley Hawks, a program that trains athletes with intellectual disabilities for Special Olympics events in both Vermont and New Hampshire.

Mosenthal, now 21, eventually began playing other sports with the Hawks, going on to help its basketball team capture multiple New Hampshire state championships and winning a gold medal in the 1,500-meter run at the New Hampshire Summer Games.

The Hawks haven’t only helped Mosenthal broaden his athletic horizons. When the Norwich resident graduated from Hanover High School, it was his Hawks teammates — hailing from all over the Upper Valley — who celebrated with him at his home.

“It showed how much they cared,” Mosenthal said this summer. “What we do isn’t just for athletics. We’re not just teammates; we’re friends.”

Mosenthal, who has Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is one of many Hawks athletes who have built lasting relationships through the program.

What started as a small program with about a dozen participants 20 years ago now has scores of people who call themselves Hawks.

And while the competitive spirit thrives, what keeps most of the Hawks in the program is that it offers an outlet for socializing, camaraderie and sportsmanship. Supporting one another is a primary theme, even sometimes toward members of the opposition.

Randi Harron, whose son, Bo, is most passionate about basketball and track and field for the Hawks, says Bo is competitive, but not in a cut-throat way.

“He was particularly attracted to the Hawks due to the way people are supportive and avoid criticizing each other,” she said. “Sometimes if he has a friend on the opposite team who scores, he’d be high-fiving him because he was happy for him.”

Rose Kerrigan, 28, of White River Junction, has been a Hawk for nine years and has competed in basketball, bowling and snowshoeing. More recently, she has taken on swimming as her primary winter sport in part because it has allowed her to work with friends more closely than some of the snow sports.

“Swimming lets me meet new people on my team and just have fun with what we’re doing,” said Kerrigan, who has dyspraxia, a form of developmental coordination disorder. “There are nice and respectful people on the Hawks. We get along and cheer each other on. You’re there for them.”

Creating the Hawks

It was 20 years ago this fall that special educator Missie Rodriguez had the bold notion of combining a Special Olympics program she’d been running for several years in Hanover, where she is a middle school and high school physical education teacher, with a similar program in Hartford. She’d agreed to take over the latter when the Hartford program’s founder had retired, but was overwhelmed juggling separate programs on either side of the Connecticut

River.

Rodriguez, of Canaan, was in her 20s at the time and was excited to combine the programs. Registering both states would mean doubling the opportunities to compete. The only issue was coming up with a team moniker.

“We couldn’t really decide what the mascot would be. We went with the Upper Valley Warriors at first,” Rodriguez recalled. “Then I decided to let the athletes vote and they chose the Hawks. Obviously it stuck, because it’s been 20 years.”

After garnering parental and volunteer support to assist her, Rodriguez opened the Hawks up to anyone in the region. Soon athletes with intellectual disabilities from Lebanon, Enfield, Hartland and beyond were joining. Two decades on, Rodriguez says the Hawks continue to attract four to five new athletes to the program every year. Between 50 and 60 have competed so far in 2018.

All ages and abilities are welcome to train and compete with the Hawks for three seasons of competition, the busiest being winter and spring. The fall season is typically devoted to bowling tournaments — about 40 Hawks bowlers are attending weekly practices at Maple Lanes in Claremont in anticipation of the season opener this coming Saturday.

Members of the Hawks also prepare for the Special Olympics Vermont Winter Games and the Special Olympics New Hampshire Summer Games during the rest of the year. Snowshoe racing, downhill ski racing and swimming are the big winter draws, while basketball is so popular the Hawks have three teams of 10 players.

In the springtime, Hawks athletes shift their attention to track and field events.

“It’s very rewarding, to see how the program has progressed,” Rodriguez said. “It’s come a long way. I love seeing the growth of the athletes.”

Like all teammates, Upper Valley Hawks push each other to perform at their best. Competitive spirit thrives as coaches encourage every athlete to set goals. Many of the Hawks aspire to be selected for the Special Olympics USA Games — it takes a gold medal at a state competition to be eligible — and about 16 have done so since the Hawks were founded, most recently Enfield’s Ashley Dow, who bowled for Team USA in Seattle this summer.

Mosenthal is motivated by teammates and friends such as Harron, 26, and Zach Hurd, 30.

“We help each other and push ourselves out of our comfort zones,” Mosenthal said. “We work hard to stretch our boundaries and improve our times.”

The Hawks’ competitive drive is aided by the approach of Rodriguez, who maintains the same expectations for conduct and sportsmanship that she would for any team. Sometimes, it means she has to play the role of disciplinarian and rules enforcer.

“When I coach, I coach to people. I don’t see a wheelchair, prosthetic limb or intellectual disability,” Rodriguez said. “I see a person who wants to play a sport, so I coach them like they want to play, hold them to high standards and make them work to reach them.”

Mary Thomas, a 24-year-old White River Junction resident who has a learning disability and plays basketball, bowling and track, said the athletic competition has helped her grow and “helped out with me being better than (my) disability.”

Many participants hold full-time or part-time jobs and have a range of hobbies that sometimes relate back to the Hawks. Harron, for example, has recorded several episodes of a program called Hawks Talk that has aired on cable access TV, featuring interviews with fellow athletes. Two of those athletes, Hurd and Mosenthal, combined with Harron and Harron’s mother, Randi, to form 3 Boys Bakery, which makes a range of baked goods it sells at the Norwich Farmers Market and elsewhere.

“I’ve bought a lot of their granola lately, and I’m hooked on the ginger snaps,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t bake and I’m not that much of a cook, so I’m really glad they started that business.”

Support from volunteer coaches is what has allowed the program to flourish. While occasional student groups from Dartmouth College and elsewhere have dedicated time to assist, needed contributions come primarily from the parents of athletes.

Rodriguez, whose coordinator and head coaching role is entirely volunteer, is hopeful another leader will emerge to ensure its long-term viability.

While she’s grateful for the “great support” from parents, she would like the Upper Valley be more aware of the important role the program plays for its “amazing” athletes.

“I would love to find a community person who doesn’t already have ties to the program to take over for me someday,” she said.

That way, Hawks athletes will continue to be able to build relationships in and out of competition. Sometimes, it even makes Hurd’s mother, Susie, a bit envious.

“It’s really about the people he gets to interact with,” Susie Hurd said of Zach. “Sometimes, he has more of a social life than I do.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.