Portage County Special Olympics athletes finally have a home field

Thanks to a unique partnership, the Special Olympics is soon to have a home in Portage County.

Franklin Township trustees and the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities have teamed up to update Brady Lake Park, just down the road from the Portage DD offices on Brady Lake Road, with accessible athletic facilities.

“The Special Olympic athletes now have a place to call home for soccer, bocce and softball,” Portage DD Superintendent John Vennetti said. “They haven’t had that. They could never have games on their home court so that their friends and family can attend without driving a long distance to see them play. Now they have a consistent field and a place to call home. It’s just such a nice thing for us and for the Special Olympic athletes to have that.”

Franklin Township trustees provided Portage DD with a $1,500 grant to offset travel costs to the summer Special Olympics games in Columbus. The township is also splitting the cost of an accessible portable toilet.

“It’s a wonderful collaboration between Franklin Township and Portage DD,” Franklin Township Trustee Kellie Kapusta said. “To let them have their home base for their Olympics and the residents of Portage County having a nice place to play… I’m just so excited about it.”

The real credit goes to Franklin’s former trustees, Ann Hanna, Keith Benjamin and Scott Swan, all of whom hammered out the deal with Portage DD, she said. (Swan remains a trustee, and Kapusta insists all she did as a newbie was sign the required memorandum of understanding.)

Islerscaping, a Windham-based firm, is digging out three bocce courts and repairing the ballfields. Proper fencing and goalposts will be installed, Vennetti said.

Tom Byich, Portage DD’s Director of Facilities and Transportation, is overseeing the park project. The bocce courts will be wheelchair accessible, gravel will be placed by the soccer and softball fields to enhance their accessibility, and next year dugout benches will be installed by the softball field, he said.

Notices will be posted when Special Olympics teams need the fields and courts, but otherwise anyone in the community is welcome.

“It’s not only a win for our Special Olympic athletes, families, and friends, and us here at the board, but we also think it’s a win for the community. Now the park’s going to be fixed up, and when we’re not using it, the community has a park that will be ready and accessible to use for everybody. It’s just great,” Vennetti said.

Portage DD’s 100 athletes compete in swimming, softball, volleyball, basketball, bowling, bocce, powerlifting, soccer, track and field, and competitive cheer. After signing up, athletes practice a couple times a week with a paid coach.

Teams have been using rented practice and competition space wherever they could, sometimes softball at Kent fields, and basketball and volleyball at Ravenna gyms or Happy Days School, said Portage DD Advocacy & Community Resource Coordinator Colleen Brown.

“Up until this point we have not had a home field or court. Every season I am trying to coordinate a place to train and compete,” she said.

Portage DD softball outfielder Jerry Dowling couldn’t be happier.

“It’s a good thing. We can go there and practice, and we don’t have to worry about finding schedules to work around people. It makes things a lot easier,” he said. “It gives us our own little place to go instead of scurrying around trying to find places. We can actually make it our own.”

Dowling also won’t miss the weekly rides to compete against teams (called delegations) in Stark, Summit, Geauga, Ashtabula, Lake, Cuyahoga, Trumbull, Columbiana, Tuscarawas, Medina and Mahoning counties.

Dowling won’t miss the rides.

“We didn’t have our own place, so we would have to go all the way to them. It was a hassle,” he said. “We just want to play so much we don’t mind going so far, but it’s nice now that we’re going to have our own little place to do it.”

Brown is also tasked with coordinating the Special Olympics and nominating outstanding athletes for national competition. As a swim team coach, she will accompany Team Ohio, which includes Portage County swimmer Brendan Casey and Portage DD powerlifter Aaron Dallner, to national competitions in Florida this summer.

For a guy who weighs in at 260, bench presses 295 and deadlifts 385, Dallner admits to being a little nervous.

“This will be my first time flying in an airplane, and being on a big stage like nationals is big for me,” he said.

Dallner is already in training, trying to reach his goal of bench pressing 315 pounds and deadlifting 405. He’s careful about following the rules, which he said means using his legs instead of his back, not throwing the bar down and always wearing a weight belt.

“It’s dangerous if you don’t have the right support. You could really screw up your back if you don’t have the weight belt,” he said.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.