Maui’s Special Olympians

Three local athletes will represent the island at the national games in Orlando

In the 1940s and ‘50s, Soichi Sakamoto turned Hawai’i swimmers into world-class Olympians. The legendary coach pioneered new swimming techniques, beginning in a Pu’unene irrigation ditch where he trained freestyle Gold medalist William Smith. Today, the pool at Wailuku’s War Memorial Complex bears his name.

Jamey Burkett, 21, and Taralyn Fukushima, 30, keep Sakamoto’s legacy alive by training three times a week at the Sakamoto Pool. This June, they’ll compete alongside thousands of fellow athletes at the 2022 Special Olympics in Orlando.

Jamey Burkett, James Thompson, and Taralyn Fukushima will represent Maui at the 2022 national Special Olympics in Orlando. Photo By Sean M Hower.

“This is about what they can do, not what they can’t do,” said Adreinne Laurion, the neighbor island regional director for Team Hui ‘O Hawai’i.

Burkett, Fukushima, and bocce ball competitor James Thompson, 37, will represent Maui at the national games. They were selected, along with 28 other Hawai’i athletes, from a group of 3,400 competitors.

The announcement ceremony, held in February via Zoom, was attended by the athletes and their families.

“It was a chicken-skin moment,” said Laurion. “They’re screaming, jumping up and down. This is their time.”

The next step, after months of training, will be a flight to the ESPN/Disney complex in Orlando. There will be media, thousands of spectators, and the pressure of intense competition. For some, it’ll be their first time off-island.

Athletes are expected to walk up to 10 miles per day between events and media engagements, said Laurion. It’s an arduous experience. Fortitude is required.

“It’s a lot for them, and for us,” said Laurion. “But it’s an opportunity to showcase their hard work. And for their parents or families, they get to say, ‘My daughter, my brother, they’re an Olympian.’”

‘Physical Fitness, Courage, and Joy’ 

Founded in 1968 at a Maryland farm by Eunice Kennedy Shriver—the younger sister of President John F. Kennedy—the Special Olympics has grown into a global event. To date, 5.6 million athletes have competed in the games.

The mission is as simple as it is profound—to promote “physical fitness, courage, and joy.”

That last word, “joy,” stands out. Medals are awarded. Winners and runners-up take their podium places. But at these games everyone is honored for their accomplishment.

“We want these athletes to know they matter,” said Laurion. “That they can achieve things and believe in themselves in a way that, maybe, they aren’t used to.”

Athletes emerge from all over, including local schools and organizations such as Imua Family Services.

The 2022 international Special Olympics had originally been scheduled for January in Kazan, Russia, but have been postponed due to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, meaning the Orlando games will be this year’s showcase event.

It will be a chance for Burkett, Fukushima, and Thompson to stand shoulder to shoulder with their peers.

“It’s a competition, which means anything can happen,” said Laurion. But, she added, she is “very confident” that at least a few Hawai‘i athletes will come home with medals.

‘Hell Yes!’

Eric Thompson will compete with his brother, James, as an allied partner at the Orlando games. Their sport is bocce ball, a form of lawn bowling that traces its roots to ancient Egypt.

The brothers practice multiple times a week on local courses.

Their stepfather was in the Coast Guard, meaning the brothers spent a lot of time traveling, from South Carolina to Oregon and, ultimately, to Maui, where the two of them live in Wailuku.

Eric recalls their high school days in Astoria, Oregon, when he and James couldn’t compete on the same team because of his brother’s disability.

“It broke my heart, often,” said Eric. “I wanted to play with him, but we never could.”

Now, that delayed wish is becoming a reality.

James and his brother, Eric, an allied partner, will compete together in bocce ball. Courtesy Eric and James Thompson.

James—who Eric accurately describes as a “big guy”—provides power for the duo and Eric supplements with finesse. Bocce ball, for those unfamiliar, involves knocking opponents balls out of the way (James’s strength) and getting as close as possible to the point-scoring pallino ball (Eric’s job).

“This is a dream come true for both of us,” said Eric. “When James first moved in with me I was trying to find outlets for him, so I contacted the Special Olympics. At first I would hang out and watch. Then the coaches noticed how good I was with the [athletes] so I took the coaching classes and became a unified partner with him.”

They played various sports, including softball and powerlifting. Eric saw how much it meant to James, and realized how much it meant to him. They began playing bocce in 2019.

“I never even knew the Special Olympics was an option,” said Eric. “I was new to this world. James has been a lifelong athlete, but I was just on the sidelines, but they were like, ‘Hey, why don’t you get involved?’”

Things grew from there, to the point where the brothers will compete on the national stage.

Will they win a medal in Orlando? Eric sounds happy to simply attend the games, but James answers emphatically: “Hell yes!”

Swimming Forward

“They’re ready,” said Sirena Lacour, who coaches Jamey Burkett and Taralyn Fukushima. “I’m so proud of them. In the pool is where they shine.”

Fukushima and Burkett’s acumen is apparent. They cut through the water with seamless skill in the tradition of Soichi Sakamoto.

“I’m so proud of them,” said Lacour. “They’re competing not only for themselves but for the idea that [the] Special Olympics matter. That they can accomplish anything they want to.”

In the water, they’re Olympians—no questions asked, no asterisks required. Their technique is sound, their desire is unmistakable.

“In the pool is where they shine,” said swimming coach Sirena Lacour. Photo by Sean M. Hower

“This is where they feel confident, like they can be themselves,” said Lacour. “Where they feel free.”

The same can be said for every Hawai’i athlete who’ll make the trek to Orlando. Burkett, Fukushima, and Thompson can exist, free from stigmas and limitations.

“It’s so inspiring. Everyone is highlighted,” said Laurion. “When we go to [the national games] everyone wants to know where we’re from. When we say we’re from Hawai’i, they all come up to us. We’re almost like celebrities.”

That level of recognition requires preparation, but it also yields rewards.

“I literally can’t imagine anything better for him,” said Eric Thompson, speaking about his brother James. “I’m so happy we get to do this together.”

His pride is apparent, as is this inescapable fact: Win, place or show, our special olympians are champions.

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Coaches Wanted

Is there a teacher or coach who made a difference in your life, who helped shape both your performance and your character? You can be that important person in someone else’s life. If you have a desire to be a mentor for an athlete with intellectual disabilities, please contact Adrienne Laurion:

Jacob Shafer