‘Unified’ team to compete in triathlon

Having won a gold medal at the Special Olympics USA Games in June, Homer swimmer Myrna Kuchenoff will be back in the pool on Saturday. This time, she will compete as part of a three-member unified Special Olympics team participating in the 14th annual Homer Ironman Triathlon, a fundraiser for the Homer High School Mariner swim and dive team.

Unified teams combine Special Olympic and non-Special Olympic athletes. This will be the first unified team to compete in the triathlon. Kuchenoff will swim the 1,000-yard competition at Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center; teammate Mark Eason, the non-Special Olympic athlete on the team, will provide the 15-mile bicycle link; Scott Trail will run the five-mile final leg of the event.

“I saw the triathlon advertised at the pool and I was thinking our athletes could do this,” said Ruhiyyih Baker, who coached Alaska’s Special Olympic swim team of Kuchenoff and Elizabeth Broeckel-Berryman of Anchorage in the USA Games. Those swimming events were held at Princeton University.

Kuchenoff was an easy fit for the swim portion. Trail, from Nikolaevsk, immediately came to mind as the team’s runner. Having showed up after the start of the 5k Special Olympics Torch Run in May, Trail quickly registered and took off running. 

“And he was the first one in,” said Baker. “That’s what brought him to mind. I thought, ‘Hey, I bet Scott can do this.’”

Finding someone to do the 15-mile bicycle portion took a bit more doing.

Eason, who works at The Center, has participated in Special Olympics unified bocce.

“We went to state in our division and got our gold medal and I’ve helped out with bocce again this year,” said Eason. 

Carol Schuler, the Special Olympics community director in Homer, was aware Eason commuted to work every day on his bicycle.

“And she was desperate. They had a swimmer and a runner, but they couldn’t find a biker, so she asked if I’d bike,” said Eason. “I thought about it for a minute and said I’d do it. Then I found out how long it was.”

Eason’s daily commute consists of riding from his home at the top of Baycrest to The Center on Ben Walters Lane, so hills are nothing new. Having never done East Hill, he recently gave it a try.

“It’s a grind, but you eventually get to the top one pedal after another,” said Eason. “I told Carol I could do it, but I wouldn’t be a super hero. Myrna and Scott are the athletes. I’m the middle link holding the team together.”

Kuchenoff’s frequent visits to the pool are helping her prepare for Saturday’s race. Trail, the youngest member of the team, is a senior at Nikolaevsk High School. He is training for the triathlon by running with his brother, Greg, a junior who runs cross country for Nikolaevsk. Trail also swims for Special Olympics and plays Mixed 6 Volleyball at Nikolaevsk.

“He’s been playing sports since he was in kindergarten. They’ve always included him at Nikolaevsk,” said his mother, Jeri.

Unified sports benefit more than just the athletes, according to Jeri Trail.

“For the athlete, it sends them the message that they’re just part of the group. It’s their community and, of course they should be included. They’re not any different than anybody else in the pool or on the course,” she said. “For non-special needs athletes, it shows that these kids have different struggles, but are out there, practicing. I also think it teaches a lot of tolerance.”

For the parents of Special Olympic athletes, Jeri Trail said unified sports “mean everything. I can’t even begin to go into what it means for us. And for parents who don’t have children with special needs, it sends a big message that they can do a lot more than they’re given credit for. For everybody, when you see these athletes out there, it’s great.”

Baker said unified teams are a way of “turning the mindset around about what Special Olympics is and who the athletes are. We’re just regular people. It might take a little longer to learn the same thing another child might learn, but they can do it with the right coaching and the right unified partner.”

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


14th annual Homer Ironman Triathlon

1,000-yard swim, 15-mile bike, 5-mile run

Fundraiser for the Homer Mariner swim and dive team.

Kate Kuhns Aquatic Center — Saturday

Warm-ups in the pool: 7 a.m.

Competition begins: 8 a.m.

Registration $50 for individual, $100 for team, includes T-shirt

Register at the pool or by contacting Anita Harry, race coordinator, at 399-8032, 235-4600 or aharry@kpbsd.ak12.ak.us

For more information about Special Olympics and unified sports, call Schuler at 235-7805 ext. 332.