NEW PORT RICHEY
It was midmorning at the floating docks by Sims Park, and Mark Miller, in bright-colored swim trunks and with a life vest bearing his name, sat on a paddleboard, ready to launch.
But first came a few words of encouragement from his dad, along with some guidance on what was about to happen.
"Okay, we're going to push you off now," Robert Miller told his son as he knelt on the dock beside him. "Then, you've got to stand up.
"You can do it."
Mark Miller, 30, floated, gingerly making his way to his feet and nearly steadying himself, before falling into the tannin-colored water of the Pithlachascotee River.
As is his manner, Miller shook it off and pulled himself back onto the paddleboard while onlookers sitting on the seawall cheered him on. Once back on board, he got on with navigating an 800-yard, buoyed course for the Pasco County Special Olympics standup paddle competition.
Miller, who has been blind since birth and has cerebral palsy, would fall once more while completing his trek as he followed the oral directions of volunteer Casey Smith in a kayak nearby.
Even so, he logged his best time yet — 23 minutes, 25 seconds.
"I feel fabulous," Miller said, wrapped in a towel afterward. "Being blind, it's not easy. It was a little nerve-racking at first. I fell twice. I got back up both times. There's nothing wrong with that."
"He's pretty amazing to watch; his turns were perfect," said Smith, one of a passel of volunteers who show up each Tuesday for team practice sessions, typically held at Robert K. Rees Memorial Park in New Port Richey.
"Mark is one of our strongest athletes in this sport; he really listens well," said coach Phyllis Crain, a physical education teacher at John Long Middle School who serves as county co-director for Special Olympics along with Val Lundin.
Presently, 1,523 Special Olympics athletes in Pasco compete in 17 sports at events throughout the year, Lundin said.
Miller was one of four Pasco County athletes to compete in standup paddleboard on June 27. He, along with his sister, Katelynn Miller, 23; Danielle Parise, 27; and George Smith, 43, will move on to the Area 6 games, which will take place Saturday at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Winter Haven. Athletes who place in that competition will qualify for the state standup paddleboard championship Aug. 26 at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota.
Standup paddleboard is a fairly new event in Special Olympics. While this is the second year for state competition, it is the first year Olympians have competed on the county level in Pasco, Crain said.
"The sport is totally different from anything we've done before," she said. "It's perfect for Florida — except when the weather gets in the way — and the athletes really enjoy it."
Crain has a personal connection to Special Olympics. In her younger years, she volunteered as a partner athlete. She was inspired by her late, older brother, Cal, who had Down syndrome, and for a time served as manager for the Gulf High School soccer team.
Years later, she encourages athletes to meet their challenges, following the Special Olympian oath: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
It's a thought not lost on athletes like Mark Miller, who competes in multiple sports despite, or his sister, Katelynn, who had to overcome her own fear of the river's darkened hue.
"I couldn't see what was under the water, so that scared me at first," she said. "You just have to pace yourself and keep your head up. It's not all about the time or the winning. It's about having fun and getting it done."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52