Homer swimmer wins gold at Special Olympics USA Games

It’s Olympic gold for Myrna Kuchenoff of Homer. Kuchenoff was one of two swimmers representing Alaska at the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games in New Jersey.

Kuchenoff earned the gold with a first-place finish in the 100-yard freestyle. Her teammate, Elizabeth Broeckel-Berryman of Anchorage won silver in the 25-yard backstroke.

Kuchenoff also scored an impressive personal best in the butterfly.

“At state she did it in 41 seconds, at the prelims, she did it in 48, but (in the games), she actually did it in 30.5 seconds,” said Ruhiyyih Baker of Homer, coach of Alaska’s swim team. 

Although Kuchenoff finished in second place, the significant decrease in time kept her from receiving the silver medal.

“Unfortunately, Special Olympics has a rule that if you have too big a difference between your preliminary and final round, they disqualify you,” said Carol Schuler, Special Olympics community director for Homer. 

“We were still ecstatic. I actually cried I was so happy for her,” said Baker.

The Alaska swimmers were two of 308 athletes from across the United States that competed in the swimming events held at Princeton University. The games drew a total 3,500 athletes from around the country. Other members of the Alaska team participated in bocce, field and track, bowling and golf.

“And we gold and silvered in all of them,” said Baker.

Lodging for the athletes was at Rider University and the College of New Jersey. Traveling to and from the games required a convoy of 200 buses, led by state patrol vehicles.

“They’d go ahead of us with flashing lights and make all the traffic slow down until the convoy went by,” said Baker. “We felt like dignitaries.”  

In addition to the sporting events, athletes also were treated to special activities, such as a baseball game, a carnival on the New Jersey boardwalk and a dinner cruise on the Hudson River, complete with sightings of the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations. 

“And they had an athletic health fair and did exams and if they found an athlete had a hearing loss, (the athlete) got a free pair of hearing aides. One of my swimmers’ glasses weren’t quite right and she got a free pair of eyeglasses,” said Baker. 

The competition and additional activities made for busy days.

“The whole time it was just go, go, go,” said Baker. “We were up at a quarter to 5 and didn’t go to bed until 9 or 10 at night they had so many fun things for us to do.”

The Alaska team drew attention for their athletic ability, as well as their representation of the state.

“One of the fun things they do is trade pins from state to state, so we were doing that and everybody wanted Alaska or Hawaii,” said Baker. “We were constantly being approached. We didn’t get all the states, but probably had 37 of the state pins.”

The Alaska team was comprised of athletes from Anchorage, Fairbanks and Ketchikan, with Kuchenoff the only one representing Homer. They earned eight gold medals and 11 silver medals.

“These outstanding athletes rose to the occasion and performed their personal best at each event,” said Special Olympics Alaska President and CEO Jim Balamaci in a press release issued June 20. 

Fox Sports provided television coverage throughout the games. That will be followed up with “Celebrating Champions: 2014 Special Olympics USA Games,” a one-hour special on Monday. It is hosted by Mike Hill and Molly McGrath and is scheduled to air at 7 p.m. eastern.

After leaving Homer June 13, Baker and Kuchenoff returned to the state June 21. 

“It was so much fun,” said Baker. “These people are champions. They set their mind to things and they can do just as much as anybody else. The whole emphasis was, ‘Come on, world. Unify with Special Olympics and we can be champions together.’ It was quite amazing.”

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