By Rachael Tolliver--IRAHC PAOJuly 16, 2018
As the women's 25 backstroke finals ended, Daren Kelly and his family stared at the score board and did what any proud family does when they've just watched one of their own win a medal in a national event---they yelled with joy.
Alexis Kinnan, Kelly's daughter, and a member of the Joint Base Lewis McCord Special Olympic Swim Team, recently competed against teams from all 50 states in the Special Olympics USA games--held in Seattle this year--and earned two medals and a fifth place finish for her effort.
Her first medal was a silver for the woman's 25 backstroke with a time of 33:59. Kinnan said during the race she kept telling herself, "Just finish--I can do this!"
In her next race she placed 5th in the woman's 50 freestyle--something her dad was proud of because he knew his daughter had given the event her best. But he had to leave the next morning and missed her last race---which turned out to be her very best.
That race was the woman's 25 breaststroke, where she won the event with a time of 37.41--and earned a gold medal. But according to Kinnan she wasn't thinking about the time or a medal--she was thinking about form.
"I was thinking that I need to two-hand touch--a rule for Special Olympics," she explained. "Then, I was excited and proud."
Stacie Pogoncheff, Kinnan's swim coach, said she looked up at the score board for placement. She expected Kinnan would do well in her events, but as long as she tried her best and had fun, as a coach she would be happy anyway it turned out.
"For her gold medal race, honestly, I looked to the officials to make sure it had been a clean race," she explained. "Many other (swimmers) disqualified in the breaststroke--she needed to make sure she had a two-hand touch. Her race was clean and she had clearly won the gold! (Later) I high fived her and told her how proud I was of her and her swim."
Pogoncheff added that Kinnan has improved quite a bit over the last three swim seasons and said they worked on building her endurance, in order to compete in further distances.
Kelly, who was a paramedic before enlisting in the Army as a combat medic and has served in the U.S. Marine Corps, had already left Seattle and was driving back to Iowa with his son when Kinnan earned her gold. They were able to watch the event live through Facebook while they were on the road and he said he couldn't be prouder of his daughter.
"The best part about watching her compete is seeing her do her best and take part in events that she wouldn't get to if it weren't for Special Olympics," he said.
"I thought it would be difficult to get leave to attend the USA Games so I discussed the situation with First Sgt. (Jill) Steele and Maj. (Katherine) Little before I left for the TDY mission. I was told that the command would make it happen somehow."
While he did make the swim meets and practices, he said he didn't help with his daughter's training. His wife, a team coach, along with Coach Sara Allen and Head Coach Stacie Pogoncheff get all the credit.
Pogoncheff said she has been volunteering with Special Olympics off and on since 1997. In 2006 she gave birth to a child with special needs and while stationed at Fort Leavenworth she started a Special Olympic Young Athlete program, because there wasn't anything in which her child could participate.
"When we moved to (Joint Base Lewis McCord), we discovered that they had a Special Olympic team on post. We joined swim when my son turned eight, which is the official age to compete," she explained. "I love every moment this team and these athletes provide!
"I am blessed to be able to coach these athletes. My dream for Special Olympics and military families, is for there to be a local team on every base--Fort Knox is gaining some amazing people."
Kelly has been assigned to Ireland Army Health Clinic and Fort Knox MEDDAC since Dec. 2017, but is on temporary duty as the NCOIC of the Camp Graying Mich., Troop Medical Clinic. He and his family will relocate to Fort Knox later this year. He added that his family always encourages their friends to find a local Special Olympics team to support.
Kinnan said her experience was one she will never forget, and knowing that she has earned gold and silver medals makes her feel like she can do anything.
"I will continue to compete and would love to try again for the Special Olympic Games in Florida in 2022."