Homer athlete, coach head to Special Olympics games

Not only is Alaska represented at the Special Olympic USA Games held in New Jersey June 14-21, Homer also has a toe in the water, so to speak, with swimmer Myrna Kuchenoff and the Alaska swim team’s coach Ruhiyyih Baker.

“I’m really proud of Myrna. Swimming has been her passion for many, many years,” said Carol Shuler, Homer community director for Special Olympics-Alaska. “She’s really dedicated herself to it and we are very pleased she was chosen to represent us at the national games.”

Having Baker coach Alaska’s swim team, which includes Kuchenoff and Elizabeth Broeckel-Berryman of Anchorage, also is a feather in Homer’s cap.

“She’s worked hard at continuing to find the best way to coach our athletes,” said Shuler. “I feel she’s an excellent coach.”

The USA Games attract nearly 3,500 athletes competing in 16 Olympic-style individual and team sports. The week-long event has the support of 1,000 coaches and 10,000 volunteers, as well as 70,000 gamily, friends and spectators, according to information provided by Special Olympics. 

Kuchenoff competed most recently in the Homer-Central Peninsula Local Games, where she took first place in the 25-meter butterfly, 100-meter freestyle and 50-meter backstroke in her division. She also was on the first-place team in the 4×25 meter relay. To land a place on the Alaska team, Kuchenoff and Broeckel-Berryman’s names were pulled from the hat of other top Alaska swimmers.

While growing up in Indiana, Baker became acquainted with Special Olympics through friends who worked with the organization. She began coaching for Special Olympics in Alaska five years ago.

“You learn so much from the athletes because they’re so willing to do what you ask them to do and they’re such hard workers because they want to achieve something new, something they’ve never done before or improve on what they know,” said Baker. “It’s just a wonderful experience. And as an organization, I couldn’t ask for better people than the ones that run Special Olympics in Alaska. It’s kind of a family, a great organization to be involved in.” 

Baker was chosen as the state’s swim coach for the USA Games through a series of interviews and began coaching for the event in February.

To prepare, Kuchenoff swims three days a week.

“But then she has to do conditioning, so she’s also working at the Bay Club, walking, running, those types of things to keep up her strength,” said Baker.

On her own, Kuchenoff also participated in an event at the Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center that involves swimming a mile in a set period of time.

“I think hers was 43 minutes … and it was wonderful,” said Baker of watching her swimmer take on the challenge.

Due to the distance between Homer and Anchorage, Broeckel-Berryman is currently working with a coach a little closer to home and a physical fitness trainer at the newly opened Special Olympics Alaska Sports Health and Wellness Center. Baker checks in with her on the phone a couple of times a month.

In the USA Games aquatic events, held at the DeNunzio Pool on the Princeton University campus, Kuchenoff will compete in the 25-yard butterfly, the 100-yard freestyle and the 50-yard backstroke. Broeckel-Berryman will swim the 25-yard backstroke, the 25-yard breaststroke and the 50-yard freestyle.

“This is very exciting,” said Baker. “Everybody is looking forward to it and the whole community gets behind us. That’s what we’re so thankful for, so many people that take our athletes into their hearts.”

This isn’t the first time a local athlete has competed in Special Olympics games outside the state. In 2013, Kinna Ledger of Anchor Point was on the state’s ski team in the 13th Special Olympics World Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. Ledger won a bronze medal in cross-country ski competition.

This week, Special Olympic athletes from around the state are competing in Anchorage at the Special Olympics Summer Games.

To follow the USA Games, visit 2014specialolympics.org.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.