Viroqua has had a Special Olympics program since the spring of 1978, when three brand new teachers saw a need and started the program.
The teachers were Carol Nelson Britain, Carol Weber-Timm and Kim Littel. Littel said the first event athletes attended was the track meet held at La Crosse Logan. At the time there were about 15 athletes competing in track and field. They attended the state meet held at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“At that time, we had athletes from Viroqua, Kickapoo, Westby and La Farge,” Littel said. “Our program continued to grow to 30 athletes.”
Several sports were added over the years as athletes had interest in those sports. The Viroqua program has had soccer, bowling, basketball skills, gymnastics, track and field, softball and swimming.
Littel said a variety of people have coached the years, including those who started the program and Nikki Briggs, Karen Laabs, Sandy Proue, Mike Bryant, Peggy Murphy, Marcee King, Cathy Reed, Craig Poshepny, Vicki Kirkeeng and Joan Stilwell.
Team basketball started in the 1990s with about 35 athletes on three basketball teams at that time. Over the years Viroqua athletes have competed in state bowling in Milwaukee, team basketball in Oshkosh, track and field in Stevens Point, swimming in Middleton, gymnastics in Oshkosh and softball in Milwaukee.
Currently there are 37 registered athletes participating in bowling, basketball, track and field and softball. Coaches include Michelle Drucker, agency manager, Steve Williams, Glen Loper, Kim Eick, Christian Leal, Peg Boucher, Christina Paulsrud, Dan Kiedinger, Littel, Jenny Peterson, Gary Johnson and athlete coach Kenzie Heath. Many volunteers have helped over the years.
Littel said the program has had athletes go to the World Games in Ireland, Minnesota, Connecticut and North Carolina, as well as the USA games in Kansas and Seattle.
Athletes share experiences
Connor Hatfield, 14, has been involved with Special Olympics for three years. The La Farge eighth-grader participates in bowling, basketball and softball. He has bowled and played basketball for three years, and played softball for the first time last year.
“I don’t have a favorite; I like them all,” Connor said.
Connor said he likes Special Olympics because he gets to meet and know people
In addition to Special Olympics, his hobbies are skateboarding, riding bike, shooting his deer rifle and in the middle of March, he was helping his grandfather cook down maple sap for syrup. When La Farge had an archery team, he was a member.
“We also raise rabbits,” Connor said. “Next year I will do FFA and plan to take the course to show rabbits.”
His favorite classes are gym, woodworking (where he made a cutting board with “Hatfield Pulling” and a tractor on it), history and art.
Connor’s mother, Tammy, said he is currently on the Viroqua Sparks team and practices with the Hotshots.
“He enjoys it and I want him to be involved,” she said. “I’ve seen him flourish. He’s friends with the basketball players and helps the younger Sparks.”
Tammy said it was important to have Connor participate in Special Olympics because it involves older and younger kids.
“People have disabilities and varying differences,” Tammy said. “I’ve never wanted him to be afraid of those with disabilities.”
Michael Mislivecek, 27, and a 2009 graduate of Viroqua High School, has been involved with Special Olympics since he was 10 years old.
He bowls, plays basketball with the Viroqua Hotshots, is on the track and field team and plays softball. In track and field, the running long jump is his favorite event; he’s also involved in the 4x100 relay run, the 100-meter dash and 200-meter dash.
Michael’s favorite Special Olympics sports is basketball. “I like to shoot around and do layups and free throws,” he said.
When he first started playing basketball, Michael was with the Sparks, now he plays with the Hotshots. Michael said he’s been with the Hotshots for about two years.
Michael said he has continued with Special Olympics for so many years because he wants to stay active.
“I like being in Special Olympics because I get to see people from other places and become friends with the people (I) see at the different competitions.”
His favorite hobby is reading, especially books on history.
“I like history — presidents, you name it,” Michael said. “I’m working on reading a book on round barns.”
He does maintenance work at McIntosh Memorial Library in Viroqua four days a week and cleans VARC’s buses two days a week.
Ray Ihle, 48, of Coon Valley, is a longtime Special Olympics athlete. The 1991 Viroqua High School graduate joined the program when he was 8 years old.
This year he plays basketball with the Sparks and will play softball with the Wild Hawks. In the past, Ray has been involved with bowling, track and field and bocce ball.
Ray’s favorite Special Olympics sport is basketball. “It’s a team sport,” he said.
“Kim Littel has always been coach,” Donna, Ray’s mother, said. “She was also his teacher. She encouraged him to be involved outside of school. She’s amazing; she has to be given a lot of credit – she’s fair to everybody.”
Donna said the Special Olympics athletes learn sportsmanship and teamwork. She shared a story about the time Ray was involved in 50-meter walk at a track and field event many years ago.
“He walked beside a little blind girl; she tripped him and he fell,” Donna said. “He finished last. I thought, ‘That wasn’t a fair thing to happen.’ The little girl came in first; he fell and was last. He was happy with his ribbon and he cheered for her. I said, ‘Donna, you learned something there.’ It’s all about sportsmanship and not winning; you learn with them.”
Ray’s other hobbies include shopping and going out to eat in La Crosse every Friday night with his sister. He said his favorite store is Walmart. Donna added he also likes taking day trips and was a charter member of Vernon Voices Community Choir.
Donna said Special Olympics has helped her son be more outgoing.
“He’s never met a stranger, which is good,” she said. “They all remember each other, even the older people. Everybody talks to him and he talks back.”
Donna said it was important for Ray to be involved with Special Olympics because he was part of something.
“He has three older sisters who were in sports, music and that sort of stuff; he took piano lessons,” Donna said. “We tried to have him involved in things like everybody else.”
Special Olympics has been a good experience for Ray, she said. “They have a lot of volunteers. They are terrific.”