Kristine Hughes played three sports in high school in San Jose. She didn’t even contemplate a future in the Special Olympics; instead she joined the Navy as a firefighter recruit for a more than a year before an injury and honorable discharge. She later played sports at Mission (community) College in Santa Clara. She didn’t even know she qualified for the Special Olympics.
But after more than a decade of participation since, the two-time National Games medalist found herself at Garner Town Hall Monday being honored, as this summer she becomes the first athlete from the state to serve as an athlete-official at a national or international event, and one of only two volleyball athlete-officials in the nation.
All her life, Hughes had known she felt different and had learning disabilities. Now, 42, Hughes was first allowed to look at documents regarding her adoption just 14 years ago.
It was then she learned that she had been born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
“Early on in my life, I knew I had learning disabilities, and feeling disabled and not knowing why, it was a relief to learn I had FAS,” Hughes said. “I wish I had been competing in the Special Olympics longer.”
Hughes, then living in Pocatello, Idaho, after playing tennis and soccer at Mission College didn’t tell anyone at the time, she said. But one day she went to a basketball practice at the invitation of a friend. She didn’t even know it was a team for people with intellectual disabilities.
That started her on her path of Special Olympics participation and involvement. For the last 11 years she has run with it in Idaho and continuing in North Carolina after moving to the state in 2007. She has competed in track and field, basketball, soccer, softball, tennis, bocce and volleyball.
She has also taken advantage in the Special Olympics of North Carolina “Global Messenger” program and given a number of speeches.
“She absolutely loves it,” SONC communications manager Rachel Milano said. “She is a very very good speaker.”
While appreciative of outside help from countless volunteers, she said the program needs to help populate itself with leaders.
“Special Olympics will beome stronger if we get athletes more involved as volunteers,” Hughes said. “Programs can only get stronger from within.”
Hughes, who was honored by the town alongside 22-year Special Olympics veteran and Garner resident Kenny Lynch, will officiate her first national level competition at the June 14-21 U.S.A. Games in Princeton, New Jersey. She will be flown out at the Games’ expense.
She hopes to compete in her first World games in Los Angeles in 2015.
Hughes has taken to roles within Special Olympics such as her training as a speaker and recruiter. She’s also a certified coach in volleyball and basketball. So when Rick Laskey and his wife approached her about sponsoring her as an athlete official in volleyball, shying away wouldn’t have fit her character.
Laskey is a 30-year volleyball official who met his wife volunteering at the 1999 Special Olympic World Summer Games in the Triangle. He saw Hughes volunteering as a line judge at a qualifier about two years ago. He offered to mentor her as part of an athlete-official program; he and his wife now mentor the only two volleyball athlete-officials (one is in Florida) in the world.
To prepare she’s gone through USA Volleyball and officiated volleyball matches for (non-Special Olympics) 12-14 year-olds.
Laskey said he’s excited to be a mentor to Hughes and to be a part of the National Games this summer. He said she’ll also probably apply to the World Games next year, but that she’ll have to make a choice because of the rules. Athletes can’t also serve as an official in the same games.
“Because she’s at that level as a tennis athlete, she may be applying to the World Games,” Laskey said.
Hughes, who moved to Garner last April and is nearly complete with her associate degree from Wake Tech in office management, said her best sport has been tennis. While she said her speed and endurance, particularly at 42, aren’t her strong suits, she said the game allows a smart player to get some edge back.
“The thing I like about tennis, you create your game around what you are able to do. I get smart and make them run, and hit the ball (back) where I don’t have to run,” Hughes said.
Her top Special Olympics finishes came at the National Games in Lincoln, Neb.,” in 2010. There she won a bronze medal in her division (divisions are largely set up by abilities, Milano said) in the pentathlon and a silver a 4x100 relay.
Win or lose, Hughes said “if I get to go play and have fun and exercise, I won.” For her, the important thing to take away from the games is how crucial it is to not discourage anyone, no matter any apparent limitations.
“Get people to stop telling athletes they can’t go for their goal,” Hughes said. “When you tell someone they can’t do something, you completely reinforce that. They’re not going to go for it, they’re not going to know what their potential is.”