EMPORIA, Kan. — John Irsik and Drake Lutes enjoyed success last weekend in the Special Olympics state games in Wichita when both achieved their goals of winning gold medals.

As part of team Emporia Express, the two say they share something more meaningful than achieving gold, The Emporia Gazette (http://bit.ly/2s6eeot ) reported.

They share a special bond through the friendship they’ve developed through their love of Special Olympics.

“John is my friend,” Drake Lutes, 11, said. “He helps me at the games, and we have a lot of fun together. He is so nice and is a very special friend.”

Irsik, 31, has competed in Special Olympics for about 23 years. He won gold medals in the softball throw and in swimming events including the freestyle and backstroke. He received a second-place finish in the standing long jump and eighth place in the 200-meter run.

“Participating in the state games is a lot fun,” John Irsik said. “It felt great to win the medals. I really look forward to the games each year. I mostly like spending time with my friends there.”

Drake’s mother, Shelly Lutes, said she and her family love John and his mentoring of Drake.

“I love that John is a big brother to Drake,” she said. “Drake looks up to him. My girls, Natasha and Abigail, love him. It feels like he is part of our family. John really looks out for Drake.”

Shelly said this was the second year Drake had competed in the games, and since day one, John took Drake under his wing.

“Last year, I remember him putting sunblock all over Drake, just coating him in it,” she said. “My first response was, ‘I’m glad Drake isn’t allergic,’ but because of that, Drake was the only one who came away from the event who wasn’t sunburned. John really makes sure Drake is never left behind. That’s how a lot of the athletes are. I love the family atmosphere. Everyone looks out for one another and pitches in when someone needs it.”

Drake won his gold medal in the 50-meter run. He placed third in standing long jump and his jump was a personal best for him. He also received a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter race/walk.

“Drake’s 50-meter run was so exciting,” Shelly Lutes said. “He finished in first place, but less than a second separated first from second place. It was such a close race. From our perspective, we thought he won but were not sure until we got down on the field. I was crying a little since it was his first gold medal ever. It was a pretty big deal to him.

“To see his accomplishment — he was so proud. The long jump was his very first event of the day and it was his best jump ever. He takes a lot of pride in his accomplishments and so do we.”

Shelly Lutes said other Special Olympians take pride in helping their fellow athletes.

“Drake has excellent role models and it provides a really nice outlet for him,” she said. “He knows how the other athletes act and knows he has to hold himself accountable for his actions. He was the youngest member from our group who participated in the state games. He’s the little guy now, but someday he’ll be the big guy.”

John Irsik said he has learned how to succeed with the help of others who volunteer to help coach and mentor.

“My freestyle was so tough,” he said. “I had a volunteer who helped me learn how to do a flip turn last year and this year, it made all the difference for me. I was able to win the gold. I was able to do it perfectly.”

John’s mother, Deb Irsik, said John has enjoyed success because he’s had great coaches.

“We have wonderful coaches,” she said. “Nancy Rumold has done this for 20-some years. She’s never gotten a dime as she is totally a volunteer. The athletes call her anytime, not only about athletics but anytime they have a problem. She is wonderful.”

Deb Irsik said John enjoys helping her at home with dishes, mowing the yard and other chores as well as helping others.

“John and Drake have really formed a special bond,” she said. “John really takes the younger athletes under his wing. When another boy started, he wouldn’t swim or play basketball unless John was there. The kids are really drawn to him, even (neurotypical) kids. He is so open and kids really seem to like him.”

Deb Irsik said she loved what Special Olympics has taught her son and others.

“Another parent shared with me after John won the gold medal in swimming, ‘When we started this journey, I really pushed my kid to medal, but these kids teach you how to lose gracefully,'” she said.

John Irsik said he enjoyed his eighth-place ribbon just as much as his gold medals, and for special reasons.

“I won a brown ribbon for eighth place in the 200-meter run,” he said. “It was such a tough race and I finished eighth of eight participants. It was special to me because I was able to finish the race, and this ribbon was the hardest for me to receive. On the back, it says, ‘for skill, courage, sharing and joy.'”

Deb Irsik shared, “This was on Sunday, the last day, and John came up to me and said, ‘Wow Mom, I don’t have one like this or this color.’ He was so excited about it. He had medaled in everything up to this point, and this was his brown ribbon.”

Shelly Lutes said she was somewhat hesitant to first put Drake in the program, but wished now she would have done it sooner.

“I wasn’t sure it was right for us,” she said. “After his first practice, I wish we would have started when he was 8. To see Drake’s independence has been great. It’s such a wonderful way for kids to gain independence. That is a very big goal I have for Drake.

“I think Special Olympics is a wonderful opportunity for all of our athletes. They can really excel at their own ability level, which I think is important for all of them. I think it’s also a wonderful opportunity to build these lifelong friendships.”

Deb Irsik said John has developed a deep passion for not only the games, but the friendships that come with being a part of Special Olympics.

“John really loves Special Olympics,” she said. “He can’t wait for each season to come along so he can practice and train. We’ve got bowling coming up, volleyball, basketball, track, swimming and this year we have softball.

“His sister, who is 17, and her boyfriend, who throws the javelin, came to watch John throw the softball and that’s why he won the gold, because they were there supporting him. I don’t think he would have thrown that way for just me being there. Now he has something in common with his sister’s boyfriend. Special Olympics helps John feel like an athlete.”


Information from: The Emporia (Kan.) Gazette, http://www.emporiagazette.com/

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Emporia Gazette.