For Thomas Estok it took one assumption to spark an idea that would become the Road Sharks, a Special Olympics cycling team that trains in Severna Park.
“I had been working with the Special Olympics ski team when someone noticed the bicycle rack on the back of my car,” Thomas said. “They assumed it had something to do with a Special Olympics cycling program.”
That’s all it took. The fire was lit and the Road Sharks were born. The Road Sharks meet every Saturday beginning on April 16 at the Earleigh Heights Ranger Station. Their season starts with a bike check-up provided by mechanics from the Bike Doctor and continues through the summer with the team participating in several rides including a century ride in Gettysburg - finally ending in the fall when the team travels to St. Michael’s for the St. Michael’s Century Ride.
For the training rides along the B&A Trail, Thomas tries to pair each athlete with a coach. Currently he is working with a two-to-one ratio but would like to see more volunteers come out this season eventually working up to a one to one ratio athletes to coaches.
In addition to needing more volunteers for the cycling program, Thomas has a wish list of items the team needs.
“We have several athletes who would like to ride with us but they need bikes. What we really need is a couple more three wheelers," Thomas said, adding that leads to another need. "We need a trailer for transporting the three-wheelers and a place to store the trailer.”
One of the program’s success stories last year came from a three-wheeler cyclist. Robyn White, 22, went from doubter to enthusiast over the season.
“When she first started riding last year, we knew she was strong. She snowshoes through the winter and does power lifting, track and field and horseback riding but wasn’t convinced that she wanted to ride,” Thomas said. “But over the season we really saw her improve and even to begin to enjoy the experience.”
Still, he laughs when he talks about her style. White heads out on each ride taking her time about getting to the turn around, often complaining about the difficulty, but as soon as they get to the turn around and she knows she is heading home she flies along the course.
As Thomas told me this story, it occurred to me that as much as he is giving to this program, he is also receiving something from it. So, I asked him what his favorite part of the program is.
“I smile a lot,” he shares before stopping a second to think about what he has just said. “I smile a lot because sometimes that is all I can do.”
There are challenges involved with the Special Olympics’ cycling program. First the athletes themselves each have their own challenges. Some have difficulty telling left from right.
Some have difficulty staying focused and others struggle to communicate. These are challenges that Thomas has learned to meet. While the class coaches are required to take covers some of the issues, most of the learning takes place on the job.
Thomas is also quick to point out that the cycling itself helps the athletes meet some of the challenges. He believes that for some of these athletes left and right and even communicating is optional on a daily basis but on the bike it becomes important and they rise to the occasion.
Unfortunately there is another challenge the athletes face that is not as understandable or even as easily corrected. Last season several of the athletes were faced with others cyclists, runners or walkers along the B&A Trail who didn’t understand that they were dealing with challenged athletes and behaved not just poorly but aggressively towards the athletes and their coaches.
Thomas hopes that the jerseys the athletes will be wearing along the trail this year will help and that articles like this one will raise awareness about the program and the athletes’ needs.
This spring as you make your way along the B&A Trail whether you are running, biking or walking, keep an eye out for our local Special Olympic athletes. Let them know you are there with a hello and a big show of encouragement and ride along with them if you would like.
I head out my door each morning for my ride or run and I take for granted my ability to train the way I do. After meeting these athletes who face challenges on a daily basis, I have a new appreciation for the gift of fitness and a true appreciation for people like Thomas and his team of volunteers who provide this gift to these special athletes.
If you are interested in learning more about the Road Sharks program please contact Thomas Estok at email@example.com