More than just a walk

GIRARD – Elizabeth Opincarne didn’t mind one bit that she was the only person competing in the 5K walk Saturday at the Special Olympics.

In fact, she preferred it, which was obvious by the ear-to-ear smile spread across her face.

“It just kind of let me take my time more,” said Opincarne, a 23-year-old from Lowellville. “When they had the volunteers behind me, encouraging me, that helped.”

Opincarne needed the inspiration because she didn’t have much time to recover. She had about 5 minutes before her next event, the 4×100 relay, started. But Opincarne, one of hundreds of athletes competing at the Special Olympics at Girard’s Arrowhead Stadium, was prepared. She walks around the track at Lowellville High School at least five times per day on a regular basis, and maybe even more strenuous than that is dealing with her “stubborn” English bulldog, Russell, whom she takes for daily walks.

“I’ve been walking my dog faithfully for about two years, and it helps,” she said.

Another helping hand through the years has been her mother, Mary Ann Opincarne. Mary Ann wasn’t sure a day like this would ever happen, not after Elizabeth suffered a traumatic brain injury at the age of 4.

“She was at preschool, and I went to pick her up, and they said, ‘Elizabeth is tired,’ ” Mary Ann recalled. “Here, she had a massive cerebral hemorrhage, and she was bleeding out. She almost didn’t make it. They didn’t know at the preschool, but I knew I had to get her to the hospital. By the time I got her to Tod’s (Children Hospital), everything was shutting down. I kept saying, ‘What happened?’ And nobody knew.

“She had a massive bleed in her brain, and they had to drill (into her skull) right in the emergency room to put a shunt in. Then they life-flighted her to the Cleveland Clinic, and they didn’t think she would make it.”

Elizabeth battled for her life and eventually beat the hemorrhage, but when she returned home, the right side of her body was completely paralyzed. She then endured multiple brain surgeries and eventually regained movement on her right side.

“She’s a real miracle because they didn’t have much hope,” Mary Ann said.

She still suffers from what Mary Ann described as “immediate short-term memory loss,” and the hemorrhage also affected her learning, but judging by her swift jaunt around Girard’s track, her legs are just fine.

“She started with bowling in the special Olympics and then track came up, so she tried it,” Mary Ann said. “There’s a nice social aspect for her with the Special Olympics. She’ll go from this to baseball and then back to bowling. She told me, ‘I’m busier now than I ever was.’ So, she likes it, and it’s good for her.”

Elizabeth, who also won a gold medal in the short javelin, will compete again in June at the state meet in Columbus.

“They go to Jesse Owens field and they have a Special Olympics there,” Mary Ann said. “They come in with the torch – it goes through Columbus. They have opening ceremonies. It’s a big event.”

Elizabeth was part of the Mahoning County team at Saturday’s Special Olympics. Trumbull and Columbiana County also fielded teams. Julia Verostko, 19, from Hubbard was part of the Trumbull Bulldogs. She competed in the 100-meter dash, the javelin and shot put. Her favorite event is the shot put.

“I love it,” said Verostko, who also swims and plays basketball. “We practice after school at Fairhaven every day. We run and do different stretches with our legs. I like the shot put because it’s heavy and there’s more force when you throw it. I never did track in my life until now. It’s a lot of fun.”

Her brother, Joey, also competed. Joey has participated in the Special Olympics for the last eight years. Michelle Burns, 38, of Poland, also is a longtime veteran of the event. She ran the 4×100 relay and had a blast. Well, except for fatigue part.

“My mouth is real dry,” said Burns with a smile before running off and laughing hysterically with a few friends.

Those are just the kind of moments that make the event special, Fairhaven Special Olympics coordinator Carol Kirsch said.

“You couldn’t ask for a nicer group of kids,” she said.