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Riverview man heads to Special Olympics World Games in Greece

Mark Zak, 19, of Riverview is one of 11 cyclists on Team USA. He’ll participate in a road race and 5K and 10K races. “He loves anything that goes fast, and he always wants to go faster,’’ his mom said.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Mark Zak, 19, of Riverview is one of 11 cyclists on Team USA. He’ll participate in a road race and 5K and 10K races. “He loves anything that goes fast, and he always wants to go faster,’’ his mom said.

There are a lot of things Mark Zak can't do.

He can't drive or go out on his own. He can't get a regular job or carry on a normal conversation.

At 19, making friends is difficult; finding a girlfriend is even harder.

Diagnosed with autism at the age of 1, Zak grew up in a world of no.

But that hasn't stopped him from finding success.

For the next 10 days, Zak will be competing at the Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece.

He's one of 11 cyclists on Team USA and will participate in a road race as well as 5K and 10K races.

For a cyclist for almost five years, getting to Athens didn't happen overnight.

Zak trains with his dad, Allen Zak, a chiropractor in Sun City Center, several times a week. The pair often push 100 miles a week on a stationary bike inside and on the hills near their Riverview home.

Mark Zak, who recently graduated from Riverview High School, got his start in cycling when soccer proved too difficult and a coach recommended the switch. Since then, he has won many local Special Olympics events and came in first or second in state games. This is the first time he'll compete for Team USA.

While many cyclists use drafting and other techniques to finish a race, Zak's strategy is pure speed.

He doesn't understand anything but go, his dad said; he just knows fast.

Since he was young, he has loved roller coasters and spinning on a seat, said his mother, Kris Zak, a massage therapist. "He loves anything that goes fast, and he always wants to go faster."

The problem is staying focused.

During one recent race, as other competitors bore down and raced on, Mark Zak smiled and waved at volunteers on the road side.

"If he focuses and really buries himself, he could do very well," his dad said.

If not, no worries.

"To get a medal would be awesome," his dad said. "To have the experience is wonderful."

It's an experience that he'll share with his parents and sister, Emma Zak.

They followed the cyclist to Greece this week and will cheer him and his teammates from the sidelines.

"What an opportunity this is for all of them to shine," Kris Zak said. "I can't imagine what that will feel like for those who struggle with things like friends and in their everyday lives."

She's happy her son has a chance to stand out because of something he can do.

"He sees other kids have driver's licenses, he sees that they're dating and have friends," she said. "Sports are something that he can really excel at. He can be proud of himself."

Sports also have helped him feel like he belongs, she said.

The community rallied to raise money for Mark Zak's trip to Athens, she said.

The Sun City Center and Riverview Knights of Columbus, and several of Allen and Kris Zak's patients donated money for the trip. Native Bikeworks in Riverview helped him get a high-quality bicycle for half the price.

In Athens, his parents hope to see their son succeed, regardless of the outcome.

"The experience is the real thing," Allen Zak said. "The opportunity to represent his country."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2442.

Riverview man heads to Special Olympics World Games in Greece 06/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011 4:31am]
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