Mike Van Zee has lifted 20 years’ worth of iron, and he’s ready to turn his hard work into gold.
Van Zee is one of 11 Special Olympics athletes from Washington who will compete at the World Summer Games 2011, which begins Saturday and continues through the Fourth of July. The Spokane powerlifter competed in the world games in 1999 in North Carolina.
The Special Olympics World Summer Games are expected to feature more than 7,500 athletes from 180 countries, all competing in Athens, Greece, birthplace of the Olympic Games.
The website for Special Olympics says the world games “will be the world’s largest sporting event of the year, a celebration of the abilities and accomplishments of people with intellectual disabilities and clear progress toward a new global vision of acceptance.”
For Van Zee, it’s a return trip to the world games.
“The last time Mike was at the world games, he came home with two silvers and a bronze medal,” his longtime coach Pat Gray said. “This time we’re thinking gold.”
Van Zee, who has Down syndrome, has competed in a wide range of sports in Special Olympics over the past 26 years, from basketball and speedskating to bowling and roller skating.
Two decades ago he became interested in powerlifting. His mother, Veda, heard about Gray and got the two together.
“We started together when Mike was 15,” Gray explained. “His mom had him in track and field. He heard about powerlifting and he wanted to try it out. He started lifting and I started working with him.”
Van Zee loved the sport from the first lift.
“I think he’d work out 24/7 if you’d let him,” Gray said. “He works hard, he does what you tell him to do and he pays attention to his technique.
“Everyone, when they first start out, has to learn technique. They have to learn HOW to lift and how to lift safely. That was a little bit of a challenge for Mike. But once he learned the technique and started putting it all together, we really started to see positive results.”
As a sport, powerlifting athletes compete in three disciplines: the bench press, squat and deadlift. It differs from Olympic weightlifting events in which athletes compete in the clean and jerk and the snatch, events that demand the weight be lifted over the athlete’s head.
“Right now, Mike’s numbers are pretty good,” Gray said. “He benches right at 160 pounds, he squats 190 and he deadlifts 225.”
When he competed in 1999, Gray said, his numbers were significantly less than that.
“I don’t remember exactly, but he was benching about 100 pounds then,” Gray said. “He’s made significant gains since then.”
Van Zee and his Washington teammates were treated to a Seattle Mariners game at Safeco Field before beginning the journey to Athens. His mother will join him in Greece, but his coach will not.
“I’m not going to be able to join him this time,” Gray said. “But I was with him in North Carolina. It was a pretty incredible situation. Walking into the stadium for the opening ceremonies was an amazing experience.
“The powerlifting venue held about 7,000 people and we had a big crowd every night. And Mike really enjoyed the competition and he made a lot of friends.
“It’s an incredible atmosphere at the Special Olympics. Everyone pulls and roots for everyone else. Everyone supports everyone else. It really is an amazing experience.”
It’s an atmosphere, Gray said, that Van Zee exemplifies every day.
“Mike always pretty much defies the odds,” he laughed. “He’s Mr. Excitement. He’s always helping to pump up his teammates.
“I think this sport has been good for Mike. It’s helped to boost his confidence level. I think it does that for all athletes – it helps to get their self-confidence and self-esteem up. It’s great, as a coach, to see someone come in and set goals for themselves. You watch them go through a couple failures and learn to make themselves stronger and better.”