Police squads and fire trucks made their way up DeWitt Street with sirens blaring Sunday morning, welcoming two local swimmers who brought home medals from the Special Olympics in Seattle.
Steven Woodard, 39, and Sofia Walhovd, 34, rode from Trecek Automotive to the Portage VFW Post, sitting high in the bucket of a Portage Fire Department tower engine, with city recognition scheduled at Thursday’s Common Council meeting.
Woodard took first in the 50-meter breaststroke, second in the 200-meter medley relay, third in the 50-meter backstroke and seventh in the 50-meter freestyle. He said he had mixed feelings about his 50 backstroke, where he moved up three spots due to the misfortune of others.
“I finished in sixth, because the other people got DQ’d because they didn’t go past 90 — they did a backflip, but they did it wrong,” Woodard said Tuesday morning. “You feel good about yourself, but … it’s an awful feeling.”
The races came at the end of 6½ months of training in his sixth year with the Special Olympics.
“Ever since my brother found out I qualified, he’s been calling around Seattle,” said Woodard, whose parents, Ron and Diane Woodard have been coaches for 26 years. ”It meant a lot to me that my family got to see that gold medal win.”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics, first held at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1968.
From the first games with about a thousand athletes, the Special Olympics has expanded to roughly 10,000 members in Wisconsin and 5 million globally in 174 countries. Most nations expect to be represented in the world games in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Four athletes from Wisconsin are expected to make that trip.
“We sent 54 players, with five unified partners on the soccer team,” said Wisconsin Special Olympics Director of Communications Tommy Jaime. He said Wisconsin participants received 51 event medals, including a silver in basketball in a game against Maryland.
“We were up at halftime,” Jaime said, “but they came back on a hot streak and kept dropping 3-pointers.”
Walhovd took second place in the 100-meter freestyle, which followed a tougher start to the games. She finished first by a significant margin in the 100-meter breaststroke, only to learn she had been disqualified. Coaches protested for two hours to no avail.
“She was devastated by that,” said Michelle Walhovd, Sofia’s mother and team coach. “She found some inner strength and she swam the exact same race in the relay 50-meter breaststroke, and she swam it exactly the same and didn’t get disqualified.”
Walhovd’s family moved to the Portage area in 2006 from Los Angeles, and her father, Jim Walhovd, became a coach in 2007. He lobbied for the creation of a Special Olympics swimming program, which began in 2011.
Through the season, the swimmers practice in Poynette or Portage, depending on where space is available, Michelle Walhovd said. The group fits 15 swimmers into the couple of lanes available in open swimming and lap swimming sessions.
In June of last year, Jim Walhovd was diagnosed with cancer. He died April 21, the morning of their district meet.
“I did this for my dad,” Sofia Walhovd said.
“She was feeling awful and she didn’t know if she wanted to go,” Michelle Walhovd said. “I said, ’Your dad would have said, ‘Get off your butt, go do what you started and remember the motto.’’”
The Special Olympics motto is: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
“We actually left a little bit of him there,” Walhovd said of Jim’s cremated remains.
Prior to his gold medal performance, Woodard said he thought about the many invitations he had turned down to keep up with his training.
“I was hoping it would all pay off, the chiropractic work with my back, hoping it would work,” Woodard said. “As soon as I got in the water, it felt good. I was picturing the coaches cheering me on, and even the people who couldn’t be there.”
Despite his best intentions, Woodard looked at the board during his turn, seeing the No. 1 next to his name showing he was in the lead.
“It means a lot to me that I got to represent the city of Portage and Columbia County itself,” Woodard said. “It’s something that most people don’t get to do.”