February 27, 2009

Stamper’s journey leads to gold medal in figure skating

Tom and Fran Smith of St. Nicholas Parish in O’Fallon, Ill., have dedicated their retirement years to teaching people the facts about mental illness and suicide. With their son, Kevin, they founded the Karla Smith Foundation. It is named for their 26-year-old daughter, who died by suicide as a result of her bipolar disorder. (Photo by Mary Ann Wyand)

Katie Stamper proudly wears the gold medal she earned during the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games. Also pictured in her Greenwood home are the skates she wore in the competition. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

For two years, the teenager and her mother had shared every step of this special journey. Yet now they were separated as they both breathlessly waited to see if the fairy tale ending would come true.

Moments earlier, 17-year-old Katie Stamper of SS. Francis and Clare of Assisi Parish in Greenwood had just finished skating in the 2009 Special Olympics World Winter Games, ending her freestyle performance with a difficult jump that she nailed.

Watching that last jump, Katie’s mother, Bernadette Reilly, was the picture of every parent who has ever sat in the stands and cheered for his or her child. Wanting Katie to succeed and feel good about herself, Reilly felt the relief and the joy flow through her body as she watched her beaming daughter put a signature touch on what had been a well-done performance.

With two more skaters left to compete, Katie and her mother had to watch and wait before the judges declared the medal winners. Katie watched from an area reserved for skaters and their coaches while Reilly waited in the stands. Yet both daughter and mother were connected by their thoughts of their shared journey to this moment—a moment that Katie considered as part of God’s plan for her.

To start the story, return to 2006 when Katie was 15 and watching the Winter Olympics on television with her grandmother. When a female figure skater glided across the ice, an awed Katie turned to her grandmother and said, “I want to skate.”

It didn’t matter to Katie that she had never skated before. She just knew she wanted to try to skate—to look that graceful, to feel that sense of soaring. So her mother, who desperately wanted Katie to have something that would make her feel special, arranged for her daughter to take lessons. And Katie not only loved skating, she was good at it.

Yet in the midst of this breakthrough, Katie also learned something about herself that would lead her to one of the toughest decisions of her life.

When Katie was in kindergarten, she was diagnosed as being mildly mentally challenged. Her mother didn’t tell Katie about the diagnosis until two years ago, shortly after she started skating.

With her diagnosis, Katie was eligible for the Special Olympics sports program. With her talent in skating, she had qualified for the 2009 World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho, where she was one of five Indiana athletes at the competition in early February that involved 3,000 athletes from 100 countries.

Katie’s selection put her at a crossroads. If she chose to participate in the Special Olympics event, she knew the news would spread to her friends and classmates at Center Grove High School in Greenwood that she is mildly mentally challenged. Like most teenagers who don’t want to draw attention to themselves, Katie struggled with what she should do.

In the end, she decided to accept who she is, challenge herself, and teach and inspire others.

So she skated at the World Winter Games, even overcoming an injury to her left foot that she suffered two weeks before the competition.

When the two last skaters finished their routines, Katie and her mother turned to look at the judges and the scoreboard where the results would be posted.

Finally, the results flashed on the scoreboard. Katie had earned the gold medal.

Katie beamed as she stood in the special area for skaters. Her mother fought back tears as she celebrated in the stands. Long minutes passed before they had the opportunity to see each other. When they finally did, Katie glowed as she held the medal toward her mom.

“I told her I was so proud of her,” Reilly recalls.

Katie hasn’t stopped smiling yet, for reasons that extend beyond the gold medal.

“I made a lot of friends there,” she says. “I met girls from Canada, and we became best friends. I think I helped a lot of kids, too. I read to an autistic boy. And I talked to the other girls about how they should accept themselves and stand up for themselves.

“Skating has changed me. It’s helped me feel more confident in myself.”

That’s been the biggest reward of Katie’s gold-medal journey, her mother believes.

“She’s beginning to blossom,” her mother says. “She’s becoming more outgoing and more expressive and more easy-going with life. It’s huge to see the way she feels about herself. It gives her the strength and the courage to speak out and continue to challenge life.

“She sees life can be good instead of a struggle. It makes you wish all kids could feel that way.” †

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