TRENTON, NJ - It may have been a hot, humid, 90-degree day, but the weather wasn’t enough to deter the spirits of two Berkeley Heights natives as they competed at the USA Special Olympics in Trenton this past week.
Stephanie Ridilla, 29, and William Saillot, 21, both competed in the first ever triathlon being offered at the Special Olympics, and both of them walked away with medals. William received a bronze medal while Stephanie received a gold medal. This was the first National Special Olympics for both of them.
For William, participating in the triathlon was an easy choice. His mom and dad, who are an avid swimmer and cyclist, respectively, convinced him to try it out when it was offered as an event this year. William, who has been on the New Jersey Special Olympics swim team since 2007, says that he started training for the event when he first signed up this past winter. He trained at the Berkeley Aquatics Center, as well as at the Somerset Hills YMCA, where he trained in the Special Olympic program.
Once the weather started to warm up, William did what he does every spring: he walked around his neighborhood. Since the final leg of the triathlon can be walked instead of run, this turned out to be a perfect way for William to train. Despite this, he says that training isn’t the only reason that he goes on these walks.
“I prefer walking for leisure rather than training,” he said, “I listen to my MP3 and enjoy the areas that I’m walking in. I also walk to the BAC when I go swimming.”
William says that even though he preferred the swimming portion to the biking, he made the most progress when biking, so it was hard to pick a favorite between the two. When asked about the hardest part of competing in the triathlon, William said it was surprisingly the walking, even though he did it so often at home.
“By the time I got to the walking, I was already tired from the swimming and biking, and I was able to power through a side stitch to finish the race.” His effort was good enough to get him on the podium and he went home with the bronze medal for his category.
The choice to do the triathlon was not as obvious for Stephanie. After initially not being selected for the swim team by way of a lottery, she received a letter from the Special Olympics of New Jersey asking her to consider competing in the triathlon given her history as an endurance swimmer. Her mother, Linda, said, “A year ago, we never would have thought to have Stephanie try out the triathlon. But now that she’s done it, it seems like such a good fit for her.”
Stephanie started competing in the Special Olympics in 1998, when she took part in aquatic and bowling events. Given the arthritis and valgus in her left knee, swimming was a good way for her to compete without putting too much strain on it. Like William, Stephanie also trained at the BAC and Somerset Hills YMCA. Currently she attends the Berkeley Adult Level A Swim Endurance Classes, which has instruction and practice to improve efficiency. To improve her leg strength for the walking portion, one of the things that Stephanie did was carry weights while walking in shallow water.
At 29 years old, Stephanie was one of the oldest competitors. She was also the only female athlete with Down Syndrome in the triathlon, which made her the first such female to complete a triathlon in the Special Olympics.
Of the three legs of the triathlon, Stephanie said that biking and swimming were her favorites. Stephanie said she also enjoyed the walking, although it was the hardest part due to her prior knee issues. Despite any issues Stephanie had previously with her knee, that was all “out of sight, out of mind” as she made her way through the course, and finished well enough to earn a gold medal.
“Completing the course was the real goal,” says Linda. “Finishing the triathlon course, no matter how far, no matter the weather, no matter the knee, to show herself and everyone that she has the ‘ability’ to do it.”
Both athletes say that competing in 2018 is a possibility, and both look forward to also competing in other Special Olympic events leading up to then.