Special Olympics Team Makes Debut at St. Anthony’s Triathlon

athletes special olympics

There are so many aspects of the St. Anthony’s Triathlon that makes it special – the picturesque downtown waterfront course, the blend of top pros from across the country and globe with amateur enthusiasts young and old, and an event that has grown over the years into one of the most respected triathlons on the circuit.

But on Sunday morning, April 28, the race will take on yet another special quality. Among the thousands of participants in the 41st St. Anthony’s Triathlon, five will be Special Olympics athletes, ranging in age from late 20s to early 50s. The team has embraced the formidable task of completing a triathlon and experienced a deep sense of pride and heightened confidence in the process.

This marks the first time St. Anthony’s will feature members of the Special Olympics, which incorporated triathlon as a sport only six years ago. But make no mistake: Marlynne Stutzman, 26; Andrew Ahearn, 28; Blake Bird, 34; William Corsi, 41; and Kathy Pilczuk, 51 – all residents of the greater Tampa Bay region – are already experienced triathlon competitors.

Marlynne even completed a full IRONMAN event in Kona, Hawaii, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim; a 112-mile bike ride; and a 26.2-mile marathon. She graduated from Gulf High in Pasco County with a passion for swimming and was thrilled at the chance to compete in triathlons and more, including plans to do the famed Alcatraz Swim this summer in San Francisco.

“The IRONMAN was a big challenge,” Marlynne (pronounced Mahr-lin) says on a recent Zoom video call with three fellow competitors and coaches Kimberly Case and Phyllis Crain. “After I finished, I felt dead. But it was a lot of fun, and I had people cheering me on, yelling ‘You got this, Marlynne!’ ”

At St. Anthony’s, the five have entered the Sprint event, which consists of about a half-mile swim; biking 12.4 miles; and a 3.1-mile run. Only Marlynne and Andrew, who has done an Olympic-distance triathlon, have competed beyond a sprint so far. Neither of them relies on the assistance of racing partners, while veteran triathletes will race alongside Blake, Kathy and William.

The only other special arrangement during the competition for the group will be starting in a delayed “wave” after other participants have begun their open-water swim. Besides that, these athletes will simply be tackling the next race in a sport they have come to love and, in some respects, defy expectations as they go.

“The triathlon has really taken off in Special Olympics,” says Phyllis, a Pasco County public school teacher who has coached the team from the start and recently began sharing the coaching duties with Kimberly. “In 2018, we had four participants in Florida. By 2019, it grew to 10. And from there it has really boomed in the state.

“Some people are shocked when you say Special Olympic athletes are doing triathlons because it’s a very difficult challenge for anybody to tackle; some people have a stereotyped image of Special Olympics in general,” Phyllis continued. “But what we like to say is, ‘Don’t judge me on my disability; judge me on my ability.’ These athletes are very capable of many things if we just give them the opportunity.”

Patrick McGee, St. Anthony’s Triathlon manager, said the event has always been open to athletes of all abilities. “We pride ourselves on welcoming any athlete who loves the spirit of competition,” Patrick said. “We are in awe of all of our athletes but especially those who have various obstacles to overcome even before the competition begins.”

Florida’s Special Olympics has already produced its own star of sorts, Maitland’s Chris Nikic, who set a Guinness World Record in November 2020 by becoming the first person with Down syndrome to complete in a full IRONMAN.

The 1% Better Foundation, created by Chris with his father Nik Nikic, sponsored Marlynne in her trip to Hawaii to compete in the IRONMAN. “We look up to him – he’s a pretty amazing athlete,” she says.

Following the high-profile path blazed by Chris, an increasing number of Special Olympic Florida athletes from a variety of sports were soon drawn to triathlons. Several years ago, Kathy and William individually approached Phyllis, a Special Olympics coordinator for Pasco County Schools and for Area 5 of Florida’s Special Olympics (Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties), to compete in the sport.

Kathy, who lives in Land O’ Lakes, started in Special Olympic events in New Jersey at age 8, later competing on her high school’s swim team. After graduating, she worked at a restaurant, and when her family relocated to the Tampa Bay area, she eventually got a job at Publix bagging groceries and has now worked there 21 years. She was eventually connected with Phyllis as a triathlon candidate and was hooked.

Plant City resident William played baseball at Armwood High School. After graduating, he discovered the rewards offered by the Special Olympics, while working as a school custodian and now a tennis club maintenance man. The organization has changed his life, allowing him to carry the torch in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. Competing in triathlons has taken it to a new level. “It feels great,” he says. “I love it and I don’t want to stop.”

Andrew is a graduate of Land O’ Lakes High School, where he played soccer and basketball, and continued competing in Special Olympics events. In 2018, the year that triathlons were added, Phyllis sought out athletes who excelled at one of the three disciplines to try triathlons. She asked Andrew, and he immediately embraced the event.

“I wanted to try something new and different,” he says. “And my father was a Navy Seal. I wanted to do something to honor him. He’s no longer alive, but I keep him in my heart when I do triathlons.”

Both coaches, Phyllis and Kimberly, are experienced triathletes themselves. Kimberly, who designs online courses for Ernst & Young, moved from New York to Tampa Bay several years ago. Her company hosted the 2022 Special Olympics in Orlando and she volunteered to help out. That led to her meeting Phyllis, and ultimately helping as an Area 5 coach.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Special Olympics or not – mentally and physically it’s an enormous challenge,” Kimberly says. “Our job is to try to motivate them as they’re doing it, and to keep them going. It’s really hard, but they feel such a sense of accomplishment and pride when they complete it. And the truth is, they motivate us to keep going, too.”

The St. Anthony’s Triathlon includes Olympic- and Sprint-distance events on Sunday, April 28, and a Meek & Mighty Triathlon on Saturday, April 27. The events feature professional athletes, amateurs and first-time triathletes. Spaces are still available to participate or volunteer at SATriathlon.com.

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