Special Olympians work out during the Calhoun County Special Olympics Paddleboard team practice in Pell City. 

Calhoun County Special Olympians are ready to run, jump and paddle their way to victory in two weeks at a state competition in Troy, but they’re still learning self-confidence.

Coldwater Elementary School fourth-grader Ashton Cox is on the county’s stand-up paddleboarding team, which competes in water racing competitions introduced to the Special Olympics last year. In a moment of uncertainty Tuesday, the 10-year-old asked his coach, Tim Cooper, what would happen if he wasn’t chosen to go to the national Special Olympics in 2022 in Orlando. Cooper, spotting a life lesson opportunity, offered that hard work could take Cox anywhere.

“If you’re the best, they don't have a choice,” said Cooper, who is also a coach at the school. “They have to pick you.”

According to Pati Tiller, Special Olympics and outreach coordinator for the Arc of Calhoun and Cleburne counties, there are 36 athletes from Calhoun County competing in this year’s statewide Special Olympics at Troy University, being held May 17-19. She said athletes range from children to adults, participating in sports like track and field, bowling, bocce ball and basketball, among others. The paddleboarding team is the newest local addition, created when Special Olympics representatives asked local Arc chapters if they had any interest in the sport. Tiller said she told them yes, because Cooper was an obvious choice to coach.

“I knew he would give it a go,” Tiller said.

Paddleboarders on the team range from 10 to 19 years old in age; six are Special Olympians and two others are “unified partners,” whom Cooper described as “typical athletes” helping set the pace for their partner students. The team first practiced with scooters to find their balance, then took paddleboards onto a pool, and then onto a lake in April last year.  

The boards look like surfboards, but they’re about twice as wide. Cox said they’re not so easy to balance on, though he said a year of practice has made him more comfortable. Cooper agreed that the team has gotten better on the boards.

“They’ve gone from where they probably couldn’t even do one lap around the lake, to then doing the distance but not fast, to where they’re learning to bend their knees and dig deeper,” he said. “They’re not knocking seconds but minutes off their time.”

Within just a few months of its founding, the team represented Alabama at the national Special Olympics in Seattle in July. Tiller said Calhoun County’s was the only paddleboarding team in Alabama at the time. Cooper said just five other states participated, but he’s heard of more teams being founded in Alabama over the last year.

Cox said he was happy with the Seattle trip, because the team got to visit a zoo, see football games, hear singers and visit a fair, all after taking a plane from Alabama to Washington.

More recently, the team competed in Orange Beach in mid-April. Cooper likened it to NASCAR, with weekly races graded on a point system. He noted that the races aren’t Special Olympics events, mixing his racers in with “typical” athletes. He said the competition has helped the team grow, and participants have treated his athletes well.

“They took us in like we’re family,” he said.

The team’s next stop is Tuscaloosa on May 11, where they’ll participate in the Black Warrior Stand-Up Paddleboarding Championship. On May 7, Oxford Chick-fil-A will host a spirit night for the team, Cooper said. Visitors to the restaurant from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. can donate to help pay travel expenses and other costs.

Cooper said the team is ready for the state competition in Troy, but regardless of whether they win and move on to a national competition, it’s worthwhile.

“Everywhere they’ve been, they make friends,” Cooper said.

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.