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Trailblazing team shoots for the stars

Ten years ago, they didn't even exist.

Now, the Blazing Stars Special Olympics athletes have seen their teams double in size in the last few years and new members -- and an ever-increasing source of volunteers -- are still coming in.

Members of the Blazing Stars, who meet at the Southeast Area YMCA in Woodbury on Radio Drive, are now focusing on the Special Olympics Minnesota Winter Games, a state-wide tournament which acts as the winter season finale.

The 40 men, women, boys and girls, aged from 12 to 50 and with varying intellectual disabilities, who meet at the YMCA every Wednesday night to hone their hockey skills, will take to the gym at Hastings Middle School on the weekend of March 1 and 2 to do battle with teams from around the state.

"All the practicing, all the work we do during the season is really building up to this state tournament," said Heather Patton, the special needs and youth coordinator at the YMCA.

"Over the years, the athletes get to know other players from other teams and there are rivalries and people get very competitive -- it's nice to see friends there, too, and everyone wants to win."

The Blazing Stars team set-up is the result of a successful partnership between the YMCA and Special Olympics Minnesota.

"We are very excited and very lucky to have this partnership," said Patton.

"About 10 years ago in September, they started a team. One of the athletes was an employee of the YMCA and she went to the executive director and said, 'I've got a great idea. You should take on the team. It fits in with the mission of the YMCA and the mission of Special Olympics Minnesota,'" Patton said. "He said, 'That's a great idea, but I don't think we can do it.' She kept on at him and he finally gave in and said she was right, the YMCA needed to do this, and it became home to the Blazing Stars."

As a result of those persistent first efforts, the YMCA now offers the gym free of charge to the Blazing Stars, and also provides the equipment used by the teams.

Five sports -- hockey, swimming, softball, bocce ball and golf -- are on offer to players.

Free help is a feature of the hockey program, which is staffed almost entirely by volunteers.

Some of those volunteers are parents of the athletes, but many are YMCA members who saw what was going on and decided to get involved.

"My husband and I used to work out here and we saw a flyer saying they were looking for volunteers so we decided to join," explained Amanda Devora, who has helped coach the Blazing Stars since June 2006.

"It was going to be just the summer, but now we're hooked."

Woodbury resident Fred Conrad is another volunteer coach. He says he loves the lack of pressure and sense of fun shown by the athletes.

"One of the other coaches asked me the other day if I would coach hockey again," he added. "I said I would be coaching Special Olympics until I have a life-changing event."

The 40 athletes are split into three teams of differing standards, black (beginner), white (intermediate) and red (advanced).

Each team gets to practice for 45 minutes, with every player having their own marked stick and helmet.

Joe Connolly plays on the white team. He also works 15 hours a week at the YMCA.

"The best thing is that all my friends are here," he said. "And my family gets to come and watch me play sometimes."

Special Olympics Minnesota splits the state into 12 area programs. The Blazing Stars fall into area 12, which means the team plays mainly against other East Metro sides in area competitions.

The team was due to play in the West Metro area tournament, held in Golden Valley, by special invitation on Saturday.

After that, everyone will be crossing their fingers for the Winter Games.

If you are interested in volunteering or playing with the Blazing Stars, contact Heather Patton at the YMCA on (651) 731-9507 or e-mail