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Special Olympics keeps going in Duluth with dedicated volunteers, athletes

A volunteer finds Patrick Stojevich with a glance across the busy aquatics center at Morgan Park Middle School. "He's wearing the hat," she says. The baseball cap in neon colors marked Stojevich as the go-to guy at Saturday's Special Olympics qua...

Volunteers at the Special Olympics
Tim Blazevic (from left) and Steph Fehringer talk about event schedules for Saturday's Special Olympics at Morgan Park Middle School with organizer Pat Stojevich. Stojevich wears a brightly colored hat so people can easily find him if there are questions or concerns. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

A volunteer finds Patrick Stojevich with a glance across the busy aquatics center at Morgan Park Middle School.

"He's wearing the hat," she says.

The baseball cap in neon colors marked Stojevich as the go-to guy at Saturday's Special Olympics qualifier for Minnesota's Area III in basketball and powerlifting as well as swimming. The top qualifiers will go on to state competition. It was the 24th year for Stojevich and the school as the venue for the swimming portion of the event. It also was the 24th year for the cap.

In his first year running the qualifier, "I was told, 'This will get hectic on you, and a lot of people will want to find you,' " Stojevich, 44, said Saturday morning while striding up the school's stairs to the auditorium where the powerlifting competition was in its final round. "So they gave me this cap."

Stojevich, who grew up in Morgan Park, went to the school and still lives in the neighborhood, plans to be back next year, but in a different place. The Duluth school district is closing the middle school at the end of the academic year and has it up for sale. Stojevich is interested in the new Lincoln Park Middle School, which will open in the fall, as a possible competition site. The facilities there might even enable Special Olympics to enlarge the event, which this year brought 120 athletes on teams from Bemidji, the Iron Range, Moose Lake and Duluth, Stojevich said.

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But something intangible might be missing.

"It's been a wonderful place," Roberta Wachlin, who oversees the Duluth Special Olympics program, said of Morgan Park after watching Sean Klund of

Duluth win first place in his weight class in squat, bench press and deadlift. "This community has totally embraced us -- the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts, the Eagle Scouts have embraced us. Who wouldn't want to be a part of this?"

Scouts from Morgan Park and West Duluth are among close to 80 volunteers and 50 coaches who make the event possible, Stojevich said. Some, he said, will be involved for a season or two, others for a lifetime.

Count Stojevich among the lifers, although it didn't start that way.

Stojevich was coaching the swim team at the school when someone asked him if he could be a timer for a Special Olympics swim meet. He agreed, and then sometime later was told the event's manager had stepped down. Somewhat uncertainly, he agreed to take over. It was to be a one-time commitment, but a single moment sealed his fate.

That was when an athlete was transferred from his wheelchair to the pool, where he swam 25 yards by bobbing his head as all of the other athletes cheered him on. That athlete's dedication convinced Stojevich that Special Olympics was worth his efforts.

"I told them I'll do this until the day I die," he said.

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Stojevich also runs Morgan Park's popular Haunted Shack in October. The proceeds provide the money for the Special Olympics qualifier. Powerlifting and basketball were added four years ago, with special permission from the national Special Olympics organization. As far as Stojevich has been able to find out, Duluth is the only place in the country to host three events in one day at the same site.

Stojevich's long involvement with the program seems to be a common thread. Wachlin has been with Special Olympics for 29 years, starting at age 13 when she was growing up on the Iron Range and was asked to help in the swimming pool at an event. Sylvia Fossen, who coaches the Bemidji team, is a relative newcomer with 18 years' experience.

Fossen's team was slowed down on its way to Duluth, she said, when their school bus started acting up. They borrowed a bus from the Floodwood schools to complete the trip, and the competition was delayed 45 minutes to await their arrival.

Such misadventures can make a long day longer for all involved. But in the midst of the smiling faces of Special Olympics athletes, it didn't seem to matter.

"Sometimes it does get long," Stojevich said. "The day before, the day of -- in the morning it's kind of frustrating, because there's always something that goes wrong. But once the event starts and I see the faces of the athletes ... It gets into you."

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