On race night at Terrace View Park pool, the shrill cacophony of screaming parents can be heard a half-block away, where they sound like gamblers at the dog track.
“Come on Josh, come on Josh, keep your head down!”
“Go Chris, go Chris, come on Chris. Go. Chrissssss!”
But as the kids leave the water and the cries subside, one competitor’s name continues to be shouted – Billy Berg’s.
Billy Berg usually finishes last, or close to it, but always emerges from the water with a smile on his face. He always raises his arms overhead in victory. The 16-year-old Spokane Valley teen has Down syndrome – but make no mistake about it, Billy Berg is an athlete.
He plays doubles on the University High School junior varsity tennis team. He races in the county swim league. In the opening round of Hoopfest, Billy Berg’s team was at center court, ready to take on another team of kids with special needs.
Billy’s story is much more compelling than the typical man-versus-man, man-versus-himself scenarios of sport.
Billy’s is the story of children never offered a little league uniform, seldom given the chance to play youth soccer and rarely invited to compete in mainstream individual sports like track or gymnastics. His mother, Linda, tells the story best.
In Spokane Valley, a town with three baseball leagues, two child soccer leagues and two child basketball leagues, Linda Berg and her husband, Bill, searched for sports programs 10 years ago that welcomed special needs children. They found nothing, except for other parents of special needs kids who were coming up empty-handed.
A few of the parents piled the children into their cars and headed to Spokane.
“We went to town and all the special needs kids were huge,” Linda Berg said. “Ours were too young.”
So this is what the parents did: They gathered their kids at a local park and taught them how to play softball. Pretty soon, they were tackling swimming and, eventually, soccer.
“The kids were about 7 years old,” Linda Berg said. “We all started this little group. We modified everything to meet the needs of kids involved.”
This is how you teach softball to a special needs child: A coach is needed at just about every position. Someone has to wrap their arms around the hitter, choke up on the bat and make contact with the ball.
Someone has to walk the runner around the bases. At 7 years old, many of the children were not far removed from learning how to sit, chew or even catch themselves from falling at the Spokane Guilds’ School.
It’s easy for a young child with Down syndrome to get distracted and not advance around the diamond. Sometimes they just sit down.
“It’s an intensive thing. It takes a lot of coaches to teach a few kids,” said Rondy Alexander, whose daughter, Sara, was one of the kids learning the basics with the Bergs. “But for socialization, it’s pretty important.”
Alexander believes there are more opportunities than are being recognized for children with special needs to partake in non-team sports like track, swimming and the like, where athletes ultimately compete against themselves. Many coaches are apprehensive about working with a special needs child.
“It’s a fearful thing to step out and say ‘I will coach special kids,’ ” Alexander said.
In truth, special needs kids need the same encouragement, the same interaction as any athlete, said Linda Berg. There would be a lot more children raising their arms in victory if that treatment were there.