The hours are long, the demands are many and the salary is non-existent.
But the rewards are priceless.
For the last 12 years, so it has been for Sandy Catiis, the head coach of the Arlington Eagles Special Olympics track and field team. Though the team has the same nickname and uniform colors as Arlington High School, the two are not affiliated.
The squad Catiis coaches includes athletes as young as 8 and adults old enough to qualify as senior citizens. But if age is not a primary issue, having fun is.
The program, Catiis said, is about “community first of all. It’s about being included. In Special Olympics, you’re the star and you’re not looked on funny.”
Though her athletes have different ages and disabilities, they share a common goal. “I want them to believe in themselves,” said Catiis, who lives in Arlington. “And I want them to be in shape.
“I’m always about doing your best. Our motto is: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Catiis got started with Special Olympics when her son Josh, who has a disability, joined the team years ago. He dropped out for a few years, then returned when he was in high school, and when the coach departed two years later Catiis took over even though, she admitted, “I had no idea what I was doing.”
But she taught herself about coaching, and today she is certificated and even instructs other new coaches in the running, walking, jumping and throwing events of Special Olympics.
Now she is looking for someone to fill her shoes. Catiis expects to move out of the area in the coming months, and she is seeking a new coach for the team.
As it was for Catiis 12 years ago, extensive knowledge of track and field is not required. “They’ll get trained,” Catiis said. “What I’m looking for is somebody that thinks inclusively (because) we want these kids to succeed.
“I want somebody that’s going to take really good care of these kids,” she added. “Really, that’s it. For a coach to take my place, it’s going to require patience and the love to want to see them succeed.”
Debi Marr of Arlington has a 17-year-old daughter named Ahna who has been in the program for nine years, and the benefits have been significant, she said.
“It’s something (Ahna) looks forward to,” Marr said. “She might hem and haw about going to practice a little bit, but when the regional and state meets come along she’s all for it. And having the support of other parents has been great.
“When the athletes get to stand up on the podium and get their medals, those are priceless moments. You see the looks on their faces and they’re so happy. Some are screaming with happiness, some are crying with happiness,” she said.
None of this happens without volunteers like Catiis, and the program’s future is in question without someone to replace her.
“It takes a lot of time and there’s a lot of paperwork to do, but Sandy’s been out there for the families,” Marr said. “She’s not out there like a high school track coach. It’s not about winning. It’s about (the athletes’) capabilities and what they can do. … It’s amazing we’ve had somebody so committed to it for (12 years).”
For Catiis, who has twice rapelled down Seattle’s Rainier Tower to raise money for Special Olympics, one of the greatest rewards has been seeing athletes progress, particularly those who were initially reticent. Some show up the first year and spend a lot of time standing around, “but by the second year they’re willing to try. And then by the third year they’re an athlete. It’s amazing to watch these kids.”
Likewise, there is special joy during awards ceremonies. “I celebrate ribbons like nobody’s business,” she said with a laugh. Even when athletes finish well behind the winner, “I’ll say, ‘Oh, you got a white ribbon, that’s so cool.’ And it is cool. It’s so cool that they tried that hard. They competed, and that’s all I ask for.
“I just love these kids. All these athletes, every one of them. They’re just amazing, and they inspire you in every way possible,” she said.