By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
The state of Nebraska is no stranger to the Olympic spirit. In the last few years, local athletes have had many of us following the games closely and searching for constant updates on our hometown Olympians.
In the 2010 winter games, former Husker football player Curt Tomasevicz helped his four-man bobsled team to the gold in Vancouver, Canada. Just a few weeks ago, Hooper native Jordan Larson and the U.S. women’s volleyball team earned their second straight silver medal in London.
In January 2013 you can add UNO student James Vanderbrink to that list. Vanderbrink, a biology major and goaltender on the South Sioux City, Neb. Special Olympic Floor Hockey team, will travel with 15 other athletes and three coaches to South Korea to compete in the Winter World Games.
“A lot of us were pretty shocked,” Vanderbrink said about his team’s invitation to the games. “The day that you hear that you’re gonna go to South Korea, that you’re gonna represent the U.S and compete for a gold…that’s the happiest you’ll see any of us.”
Vanderbrink has been part of the South Sioux City unified floor hockey team for the last six years. On a unified team, Special Olympics athletes with intellectual disabilities compete alongside unified partners.
In South Sioux City they’ve been dominating for a very long time. Vanderbrink said the team has an annual competition in St. Joseph, Mo. against other teams from Nebraska and Missouri.
In the past 15 years, South Sioux City has brought home the gold each time. But January 2013 will be just the second time in team history they’ve been invited to the Winter World Games.
The other invitation came in 1997 when the games were held in Toronto. Like the Olympics, the World Games alternates between a summer and winter edition every two years.
“It gives you a respect for how life is, you can’t take it for granted,” Vanderbrink said about playing as a Special Olympics athlete. “You learn about these people’s disabilities and you find out you can’t rush everything. You have to be patient with them.”
“There’s a couple guys you get to know and they’re really fun to be around with, fun to joke with. They just like to be treated like normal people.”
Floor hockey is played similar to regular hockey except for three main differences. Instead of competing on ice the athletes compete on a hardwood floor, use a felt tip doughnut-style puck with a hole in the center and wooden poles are used to control the puck.
A goaltender, two defensemen and three forwards make up the players on the floor. Rules dictate that no more than three unified partners may be in at once.
It might sound like forming a team around players with different communication skills would be a major obstacle towards success. But Vanderbrink says that time spent together, and patience, solves those problems.
“They can get it pretty quickly,” Vanderbrink said about those members of his team who have difficulty communicating. “After a while, practicing and scrimmaging against each other you get used to each other, our strengths and you develop a good chemistry.”
Vanderbrink indicated when communication barriers do exist, the team finds a way to make it easier for that individual. In most cases, they’ve been around that person long enough that the team knows how they work and what they think.
Vanderbrink said one of his teammates who is sometimes difficult to understand is goalie Bobby Dowdle. Dowdle has been involved with Special Olympics for 13 years and has been one of the best athletes the organization has ever seen.
Dowdle competed in soccer in the 2006 National Special Olympic games, winning a gold medal with Team Nebraska. In 2010, he won gold and silver competing in track in front of some hometown fans in Lincoln.
“We’ve known him for a long time and we know what he’s talking about,” Vanderbrink said about Dowdle communicating. “There’s some words we can get from his speech that we know. We know his personality and we know what he’s like. It’s just being around him and knowing what he thinks. It takes a while to get used to, but eventually people understand what he’s trying to say.”
Regardless of what his teammates can or can’t say, Vanderbrink said their competitive spirit is pretty obvious. What they want to say or mean to say is most often expressed in the sweat they leave out on the court.
To get to South Korea, Vanderbrink and his teammates have to raise about $28,000. Though it’s only been about a month since the team found out they were going, they’re already more than a third of the way to their goal.
The team has been organizing events such as poker runs and auctions to meet their goal. They’re also selling Team USA t-shirts for $15.
Any business that donates a minimum of $250 will get their logo put on the team’s competition shirts. Those who wish to make a private donation can do so on the team website at usafloorhockey.org. Just look on the right side of the menu and click on donate.
“I think it’s a really big movement,” Vanderbrink said. “I really hope someone can come with us, like ESPN could come and shoot some videos of this so people can see that the athletes here, even though they have intellectual disabilities, they work just as hard if not harder than any other athletes. They have the same competitive spirit as anybody and they want to show that just because you have these disabilities it doesn’t mean that you’re different.”
Before the team leaves for PyeongChang, South Korea, the team will spend a week in December training in Lake Placid, NY.
“We got a pretty big sense of accomplishment that this is a team from South Sioux City that’s so good that we were selected to represent the U.S. in South Korea,” Vanderbrink said.
And how does Vanderbrink and his teammates compare to the competition from the rest of the world?
“I’m not sure exactly how we stack up but I’m sure these other teams have the same goal in mind,” Vanderbrink said. “This is their one chance that they’re gonna bring their ‘A’ game to us, so we have to be sure we’re better than them.