Photos by Steve Shay
Two West Seattle residents play on Chief Sealth's Special Olympics Unified Sports Club soccer team. They join six other athletes with disabilities and eight "partner players" from the Tukwila based Seattle Sounders Academy Team, teens without disabilities, on a trip to Costa Rica May 8 to compete. The Unified Team trains at Anytime Witness in West Seattle for free. Top photo, left to right are: Cody Peterson, Joe Hill, & Jowell Francia-Figueras, all of Federal Way, West Seattle-raised Board Member and Program Manager Norm Smith, Christian Freitis of Chief Sealth, Ali Hiwle of Ingraham HS, Morgan Hegge of Chief Sealth, & coach, trainer, and co-owner of Anytime Fitness Andrew Saldana. Pictured bottom, L-R: brothers Daniel, Jacob, & Andrew Saldana who own Anytime Fitness and grew up in West Seattle.

Sounders to send Special Olympics players from Chief Sealth to Costa Rica

The athleticism of two Chief Sealth High School soccer players have earned them a place on the roster of a statewide team representing the U.S. to compete against Central and South American teams in San Jose, Costa Rica, May 8 to 17. But wait... There's more.

West Seattle residents Morgan Hegge and Christian Freitis play on their school's Special Olympics Unified Sports Club soccer team. The two sophomores join six other athletes with disabilities and eight "partner players", teens without disabilities on the Seattle Sounders Academy Team. Like the pros, they will have 11 team players on the field at once, six Special Olympics athletes and five partner players.

Hegge, Freitis and other Special Olympics athletes making the trip, including three from Federal Way, train for free Monday's and Wednesdays after school at Anytime Fitness, 3727 California Ave SW at SW Charlestown St. in West Seattle. The gym is owned by three West Seattle brothers, Chief Sealth Alumni, Daniel, Jacob and Andrew Saldana. They also own Anytime Fitness on Capitol Hill.
Their mother, Norene, a special ed instructor at Chief Sealth for 10 years, works both with their autism program and Unified Sports soccer team. Andrew, 34, will be assistant coach and trainer for the Special Olympics athletes in Costa Rica. His mother's involvement with the disabled sparked his interest to participate.

The Special Olympics Global Football initiative will attract players from 12 countries, including Cuba, Honduras, México, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Paraguay, and of course Costa Rica and the U.S.

According to the Global Football Initiative website, "The event will promote a message of acceptance and respect through sports (...) athletes will represent their countries and will demonstrate that soccer is the most popular and powerful sport capable of creating hope and overcoming cultural barriers (...) The visibility of football will also help bring greater awareness, acceptance and respect for people with intellectual disabilities."

Former West Seattle resident, Special Olympics board member Norm Smith, who helps head up fundraisers including their annual Polar Plunge, is the general manager for the program and will accompany Andrew and the players. He said the Seattle Sounders was the first American soccer team involved, and that he hopes its Academy Team players, upon returning, will become involved with Unified Sports at their own high schools.

Said Andrew, "This leads up to the potential World Cup for Special Olympics in Brazil. It would piggyback on the actual World Cup. This is a stepping stone. We want our team to get a taste of what that competition is like.

He added, "My brothers and I were proud to open out doors to these athletes twice a week. We're excited to grow awareness to our members, to let them know this is something we're passionate about.

"The biggest reward I get for this is seeing how excited these athletes get in the moment," said Andrew. "It's genuine joy. 'Regular' able-bodied kids want to be cool verses these kids who are giving their 100 percent and loving it. They rejuvenate my blood flow and get me excited to be on the field with them."

"I started going to the Special Olympics clubs at school," said Hegge, who is 5' 11" . He was at Anytime Fitness but was benched there with a knee injury. "This was really fun so I kept on going. I like soccer way more than any other sport. I am a big Sounders fan. My favorite subject in school is language arts. I like writing."

"I'm happy and excited," said Freitis, who was perspiring while hitting the equipment. "I have never been (to Costa Rica) before. I have been to Colorado and California. I like working out, stretches, pushups, all that good stuff. I'm pretty good in soccer but still have a lot to do."

One Special Olympics soccer player, Joe Hill, 43, of Federal Way, comes to the gym and trains with the teens. He is trying out for the team.

"Joe is out here getting a second chance to play a game he has a passion for," said Andrew.

"I was in a car accident in '04 and suffered a traumatic brain injury," said Hill, who works at HD Waterworks. "I didn't think I would qualify for Special Olympics. My doctor examined me and signed some forms so I've been playing ever since. It's a wonderful experience. Everyone is having fun. I played soccer in my late 20's, before my accident. It was so competitive. It's just more positive now."

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