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Special Olympics athlete prepares to run in Unified Relay Across America

SHARE Special Olympics athlete prepares to run in Unified Relay Across America

SALT LAKE CITY — On July 2, Natalie Green will head to downtown Salt Lake City to run her relay segment of the Unified Relay Across America. That evening she will receive the Flame of Hope at 200 E. South Temple and carry the torch across Temple Square before handing off to another runner. The torch will finish its Utah segment at Liberty Park before continuing on to the Special Olympics Summer Games in Los Angeles.

As an infant, Natalie was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and epilepsy due to an in-utero left hemiplegic stroke, and has had daily seizures that were only partially controlled with diet and medication. In July 2011, she underwent brain surgery (pediatric peri-insular hemispherotomy) at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City. She has been seizure-free since the surgery but still has a moderate left-side paralysis, vision field cut and cognitive delay, all of which have been present since birth.

Natalie first participated in the 2012 Summer Games of the Utah Special Olympics. The games were held at the National Ability Center in Park City the first year after her brain surgery. It was a celebration based on competition and her first real attempt to build up her physical strength. Natalie competed in the cycling 500-meter and 1K events, and came home with a silver and gold medal that year. In her practices leading up to the games, Natalie's parents discovered that she regularly pushed her adoptive bike to go faster than it was designed, sometimes fast enough that her bike would roll over in corners.

After some research, the Greens found Utah Trikes, a shop that offered customized tadpole trikes that were designed with a lower center of gravity, more stability and better braking. The shop happened to be one of a handful in the U.S. that specialized in customizations, which had outfitted CAF and Paralympic riders for competition at the national level. It was able to put the steering, gears and braking on one side to accommodate her left-side weakness. On the new bike, she could practically fly.

Natalie returned to the 2013 Summer Games with her new custom trike and competed in three events — the 500-meter, 1K and 5K road races. On the second qualifying race, she was cut off by another rider in a corner and hit a cone with her back wheel, which flipped her over. She had some road rash on her arm but made it through in one piece. Someone on the course stepped in to help right her on the bike, and she finished that race (she's a tough kid). By the end of the day, she had placed first in all three of her events.

Since beginning to cycle, Natalie has had opportunities to meet Paralympic cyclist Steven Peace, Paralympic cyclist and triathlete Billy Lister, and Paralympic cyclist, sit-skier and mountain climber Muffy Davis. Each athlete has encouraged Natalie to ride and shared their philosophy of competition and service.

In 2014, the Special Olympics of Utah had to evaluate the cost of programs to manage its budget, and more expensive events like cycling were removed from the events offered at state games. For Natalie, there is a strong desire to bring these events back as funding is re-established and budgetary constraints are removed.

Natalie participated in unified soccer at the 2014 Utah Summer Games, and will return to the field with a dedicated Special Olympics team this year. Her hopes are that Special Olympics will re-open its cycling events for state competition, so that she can ride and compete in the event she's grown to love. She misses the competition of a road race and the lure of more medals won. She wants to get back out on her bike and train for more distance.

In 2015, Los Angeles will host the 14th Special Olympics World Summer Games. The games are scheduled for July 25 to Aug. 2, with the Unified Relay preceding the event with three routes that take the torch across the United States from May 26 to July 10. The torch will cross Utah July 2 and 3. Although Natalie won't compete in the World Summer Games, she is running with the torch to be a part of the event and to help spread a message of inclusion and respect for people with intellectual disabilities. She is not shy telling people about the upcoming event, and is actively recruiting others to join her team and help fundraise for Special Olympics.

The Special Olympics athlete motto is "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." Natalie wants to win, but is willing to step forward to help others make it to the World Summer Games. After all, Special Olympics is about celebrating different abilities, not disabilities.

You can donate to Natalie's Unified Relay team at http://uraa.donordrive.com/participant/natalie or to Special Olympics Utah at http://sout.org. Learn more about the Unified Relay at http://www.unifiedrelay.org.