LENA — As athletes from around the world prepared to run, leap and swim their way to Olympic gold in Rio, another group of athletes was showing off skills and reaching new goals right here in northeastern Wisconsin.
On July 23, the 27th Columbian Olympics for the intellectually challenged were held in Lena, where nearly 40 participants from around the region enjoyed a day of healthy competition and amazing achievement.
“This has become more of a tradition than an event,” said event organizer Lucas Meyer. “It has become something bigger than we ever thought.”
The event, sponsored and organized by the Knights of Columbus Councils of Lena, Coleman, Crivitz, Marinette and Niagara, was originally held in Crivitz as a way to support people of all ages with mental impairments. Dave Hallada, Grand Knight of the Coleman Council, said the Knights use money from their Tootsie Roll sales to fund the event.
“It’s a nice thing,” said Hallada, former KC District Deputy. “It makes you feel a lot better when you come out of there knowing you helped somebody that may not have as many opportunities to do these things. It’s really all about these individuals.”
When Crivitz could no longer host the Olympics, the event was moved to Coleman on the school’s football field. A couple of years later, the field was torn up and reseeded to prepare for the football season, so Bob Dietsche of the Lena Council stepped in and offered the facilities at St. Anne Church.
“When the Olympics didn’t have a place to go, I said, ‘We can do it here in Lena,’” said Dietsche, who served as KC District Deputy. “We’ve got two shelters, fields and a big playground, so it’s perfect. They have been held here ever since.”
Dietsche ran the Olympics for a number of years before turning over responsibility to Lucas Meyer, who has organized the last four events.
“When they were looking for someone to take over I said, ‘I’ll take on the challenge,’” Meyer said. “It is not much of a challenge now because of all the help we get running this.”
Meyer, a member of the Coleman Council, said he initially underestimated how big of an event the Columbian Olympics were, but the eagerness of the competitors made him realize just how much they mean to people.
“Around 80 percent of the competitors are returners, but we always have new faces,” Meyer said. “The participants really don’t forget it. They can’t wait to see their package show up in the mail for the event.”
The Columbian Olympics consists of nine events, including Frisbee toss, the 100-meter dash, softball throw, free throw shoot, bean bag toss, t-ball, football throw and punt and bucket ball.
Competitors, ranging in age from early teens to 70, compete in these events and are awarded medals by the Grand Knights from each council for their efforts. They also receive a new T-shirt and get to enjoy a free cookout with their families and guardians.
Event volunteer and Coleman council member, Jim Brien, said the participants always have a great time, which makes the event worthwhile every year.
“They always have fun competing, and it’s a very rewarding experience,” Brien said. “They are just very special individuals.”
In addition to helping the competitors, Meyer said the Columbian Olympics is also a good way to spread unity across councils and neighborhoods.
“The councils and volunteers become one group rather than five different councils,” Meyer said. “We get more and more help every year, and it makes the day a lot easier, that’s for sure. Sometimes it seems like the volunteers get even more fun out of it than the competitors.”
Meyer said he hopes to continue improving the games every year by making them bigger and pulling them into the present day. This year, a local girl sang the National Anthem and a sound system played music and announced participants’ names throughout the day. Meyer said he is also looking into getting things like trophies and professional signage in the future.
“Things like that just make the event that much more meaningful,” Meyer said.
Dietsche said in all the years he has been involved with the Columbian Olympics, the competitors never stop inspiring him.
“The greatest joy I have is watching the smiles on the contestants’ faces,” Dietsche said. “It’s just exhilarating to see how excited those individuals get, and that’s why we keep doing it. The contestants really enjoy it and they look forward to it every year.”