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Lee’s Special Olympics SUP team is practicing up for the regional qualifier
July 12, 2017

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Two of the main goals of the Lee County Special Olympics SUP team are to have fun and to build confidence.

And the team's six athletes are most definitely meeting those goals.

"I'm going to win, 100 percent," said athlete Matthew Seiler. "I am fast."

Seiler, a resident of Lehigh Acres, joins his teammates every week at Bunche Beach to practice SUP (stand up paddleboard) skills. He's on his second year, and likes the sport because it's fun and he gets good vibes with his coaches and being out on the water.

"I can feel the energy," he said.

The team is kicking up its practice for the regional competition in Naples Saturday, July 15. That's the qualifier for the Special Olympics State Summer Games in August.

But there's not much pressure - mostly, they're all just having fun.

Coach Mark Melancon is the leader of the team. The Sanibel resident really loves SUP - besides being the team leader and SWFL SUP Club leader, he owns his own paddleboarding business, Yoloboard Adventures Sanibel.

He got the Lee County team going after helping out at a Special Olympics fun race in 2011.

"That got me going," he said.

It started with two athletes and has been growing. He uses his own equipment with the team, but hopes fundraising efforts will help the team get its own set.

The annual Battle on the Blueway races, held on Fort Myers Beach, is one of the club's biggest fundraisers and helps it secure funds to travel to regional and state games. This year's was set for June 10 but had to be canceled due to severe storms.

Despite the cancelation, Melancon said the club was still able to raise more money than last year from registration and other donations.

"It's grown over the years," he said. "Now the state has the competition, so we're working on timing."

Stephanie Pappas has been a team member for about four years. She's got a competitive streak and is one of the fastest on the team, having won a few medals for her competitions. She's working up to the 2-mile race.

"I like being out on the water," she said. "It's fun."

While Melancon has been a SUP guy for years, it's not the first time he's worked with special needs athletes in an aquatic setting.

When he was in college, he worked for a state school in Louisiana, teaching lifesaving skills to special education counselors. He had to bike to and from work, and said he would bike home in tears every day.

"The people housed there were just dropped off by their families," he said. "It was sad, and I wasn't mature enough to handle it."

Since then, however, Melancon said society has, for the most part, evolved to be more and more accepting of people with special needs and the programming opportunities have expanded significantly.

"You can see it here," he said. "The level of support with our families, they help each other out. Society is definitely more accepting."

It's more than just a sport - it's a community for the families. They help make sure their children can get to practice, he said, so if one parent can't make it, another will take their child for them. Many of the parents socialize together and catch some rays while the athletes practice.

"It's remarkable for me to do this," Melancon said as he watched the athletes ready their equipment. "I think I get way more out of it."

Coach Linda Markley of Cape Coral agrees. It's her fourth year coaching, after joining the SUP Club six years ago.

"Before I knew it, they said they needed volunteers and I became a coach," she said.

Markley owns her own business, Any Lab Test Now, which helps get medical lab testing for uninsured patients. Coaching the Special Olympics team has become her passion.

"I'm a grandma, but my kids are scattered around, so now this is my outlet," she said.

She's supposed to refer to the team members as her athletes, but said she slips up and calls them her kids. Markley said she gets emotional when she gets to see the team succeed.

"I like seeing their improvements and their excitement and the joy they have," Markley said.

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