Athletes revel in return to games

  • Lili Leonard-Heath, left, and her mother Mary Alice Leonard-Heath finish packing while they wait for the results of their COVID-19 rapid tests at their home in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, June 3, 2022. The family is headed to Orlando, Fla., for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games where Lili will be competing as a swimmer for New Hampshire. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News — Alex Driehaus

  • From left, Windsor Police Chief Jennifer Frank talks to Special Olympics athletes Lili Leonard-Heath and Ellie Havrda during a sendoff at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, June 3, 2022. Both athletes will be representing New Hampshire in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, Leonard-Heath as a swimmer and Havrda on the track and field team. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • Special Olympics athletes and their families gather for a sendoff at Hartford Town Hall in White River Junction, Vt., on Friday, June 3, 2022. Six athletes from the Upper Valley Hawks are competing in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Fla., five representing New Hampshire and one representing Vermont. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Alex Driehaus

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2022 9:49:38 PM
Modified: 6/7/2022 9:38:03 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Outside Hartford Town Hall last Friday, Steven Zue happily greeted everyone who arrived just before noon and with good reason: He’d been waiting years for this moment.

After the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered most national and international Special Olympics competitions, athletes were finally going to compete again — this time on an even larger scale.

On Friday, Upper Valley athletes gathered in tie-dyed shirts surrounded by family, public safety officials and other supporters to celebrate their departure. This week, six athletes from the Upper Valley Hawks are in Florida to compete at the USA Games. For most, it is the first time they will participate in a national or international competition.

“He is so excited,” said Tracy Henry, Zue’s mentor. “He is beyond excited. He is ecstatic.”

Zue, of Wilder, who was supposed to attend the World Games as a snowshoer before the COVID-19 pandemic forced their cancellation.

In Florida, he will participate in the bowling competition.

Energy radiated off each athlete at Friday’s event, where they received rock star treatment from those who stopped by the gathering, including a bevy of law enforcement officers and EMTs.

The majority of the Upper Valley Hawks — including some who live in Vermont — are representing New Hampshire, which is sending a record 113 athletes and volunteers to the USA Games, nearly double the amount it sent to the previous 2018 USA Games in Seattle, said Marc Ericson, senior manager of communications for Special Olympics New Hampshire.

Two years of limitations brought on by pandemic was a motivating factor.

“It was important to Special Olympics and in particular to our board of directors that we make these USA games something very special,” Ericson said in a phone interview. “They felt it was important to show our athletes and our families that sports is what we do and the USA Games are someplace we wanted to have a very strong showing.”

Among the athletes is Lili Leonard-Heath, who competes both for the Hawks and the Upper Valley Aquatic Center. She trains five days a week at UVAC, splitting time between working out and swimming.

“It’s very emotional because they’re so excited. When you see the group together it’s almost overwhelming,” said Leonard-Heath’s mother, Mary Alice, who is program coordinator for the Upper Valley Hawks. “They are going to represent us. They’re going to show their country what they can do.”

Brett Mayfield will be participating in the USA Games as his daughter Jenny Mayfield’s golf caddy. The pair, who are part of the UV Hawks, will be representing Vermont.

He emphasized that the athletes selected to compete are the best of the best in their sport and had to meet a pretty high bar to be chosen for the state teams.

“It’s a really good thing for the Upper Valley and it shows the level of time these athletes put in to their sport,” Mayfield said. “Jenny is just another member of our family and her achievements are recognized as any athlete would be going to a national event.”

Brett Clough, of Quechee, is competing in three different power-lifting events: bench press, squats and deadlift. Clough trains three days a week at AnyTime Fitness.

Clough said Friday his favorite part about weightlifting is “just knowing I’m stronger than I thought I was. It keeps me in shape.”

He was also excited about going to Florida for the first time.

“I’m looking forward to seeing if he can get his personal best on some of the lifts. He’s hoping for that too,” said his father, Sam Clough.

Clough can deadlift close to 500 pounds, squat 400 pounds and bench press more than 200 pounds.

Ellie Havrda will be competing in a track event — the 100 meters, 200 meters and long jump — with her partner Sora Shirai. The Hanover High students are part of the Hanover High School Unified Athletics and practice three days a week.

“I like it because I’m mostly outside,” Havrda said Friday. She was also excited to visit Disney World to see some of her favorite characters: Mulan, Alice in Wonderland and Elsa from Frozen.

“We feel very lucky and we are very excited she got this opportunity,” Ellie’s mother, Jessica Havrda, said. “Ellie has been counting down the days for the last 60 days.”

Like many other athletes, Havrda participates in multiple sports, including basketball, skiing and swimming.

The Hawks aren’t the only Upper Valley-based group sending athletes to the USA Games: Five members of the Claremont Cool Cats are also representing New Hampshire.

“That’s a lot. That’s more than we’ve ever had going to any type of USA or World Games at one time,” said program coordinator Beth Lemieux. “I see it as a huge opportunity for just competition, excitement, adventure, new friends.”

It will swimmer Sarah Peters’ first time attending the USA Games since she started competing 20 years ago.

“It’s awesome,” Peters said in a phone interview last week before practice at the CSB Community Center in Claremont. Throughout the years, she’s supported her three sisters in high school athletic events including soccer and basketball. “Now it’s my chance to do stuff like that.”

Peters is especially looking forward to being around her teammates in Orlando.

“I feel like I’m flying in the water,” Peters said about swimming.

The national coverage of the games by ESPN and ABC, similar to that of the Paralympics, shows that “inclusion … finally has come to America, if not the whole world,” Mayfield said.

“When they go down there (to Orlando), they’re not special anymore,” he added. “They’re just athletes, competing in sports they’ve spent their lives committed to.”

Upper Valley Hawks athletes at the USA Games: Brett Clough, powerlifting; Derek Davis, basketball; Lili Leonard-Heath, swimming; Steven Zue, bowling; and Ellie Havrda, Track (Hanover High School Unified Athletics, with partner Sora Shirai), for Team NH. Jenny Mayfield, golf, for Team VT.

Claremont Cool Cats athletes at the USA Games: Eric Lemieux, Claremont, swimming; Sarah Peters, Claremont, swimming; Kayla Millette, Claremont, bowling; Megan Lantz, Claremont, bocce; and Lorrie Strand, Chester, Vt., bocce.

Editor’s note: The games are being broadcast on ESPN 2, ESPN 3, the ESPN app and ABC. More information can be found at or Facebook: Special Olympics USA Games. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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