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'It's just special'

A small boom jolts the runners on the track to begin as their feet push them as fast as they can go. The quiet thump as their sneakers meet the polyurethane track is barely audible as people on the sideline cheer and clap as the runners make thei...

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Dickinson baseball players Kendall Jones, Shawn Stoltz and Shawn Steffan keep time for Mary Jo Gunville on Sunday at the Special Olympics At the Biesiot Activities Center. The Dickinson baseball team was there to help run the events and cheer on the athletes.

A small boom jolts the runners on the track to begin as their feet push them as fast as they can go.

The quiet thump as their sneakers meet the polyurethane track is barely audible as people on the sideline cheer and clap as the runners make their way to the finish line.

Zach Dobitz runs across the finish line and into the arms of his dad Pete.

“When I was standing there, Zach came across the finish line and about bowled me over he was so excited,” said Pete Dobitz, Dickinson High School’s baseball coach.

Zach had a small fan following of DHS baseball players who collected him into embraces and cheers after he finished his race.

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Zach was one of the athletes at the Special Olympics on Sunday at the Biesiot Activities Center.

Zach, who has Down syndrome, has been competing in Special Olympics for about five years. With his involvement came the whole gang: Pete, his wife Joyce, their children -- Michael, Sarah, Beth and Sam -- and, in the past four years, Pete’s baseball team.

“It’s been kind of a tradition now,” Pete said. “The boys have taken upon themselves to make sure they are there and helping out and giving back to the community. The boys, they love giving back to their community and it’s a special cause.

Greg Haataja, a junior outfielder for the Midgets, said he took away inspiration from his time at the Special Olympics on Sunday.

“What they have isn't stopping them and that's something we got to try to incorporate into our games every day,” he said.

Haataja, along with seven of his teammates, spent their Sunday helping with the track and field games, from keeping times and scores to measuring distances on the shot put and softball throw.

The most important thing for Pete, however, was seeing his players be supportive and encouraging.

“I had three or four of them over at the shot put and three or four of them over at the softball throw, and you know these are kids that can really throw,” Pete said. “An individual in a wheelchair gets up there and throws it three or four feet and they are cheering him on saying ‘Good job, good job.’”

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Pete said he was proud to see that in his baseball players on Sunday.

“It’s heartwarming to see that your highly competitive athletes at the high school varsity level still have that compassion in their heart and the understanding in their heart that when you are competing and doing your best, not the best, but your best that’s all that really matters,” he said. “I saw a lot of that out of my baseball boys yesterday. I’m pretty proud of them.”

A family affair

The Special Olympics are important to the Dobitz family because they have been involved for years.

Pete’s sister, Gail, competed when she was younger, so he grew up being involved with the events.

“They had, back then, what they would call huggers and we would stand at the end and when the contestants would finish, they would get a hug, whether they won or came in the last,” Pete said.

Pete’s sister has Down syndrome, as does Zach.

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The families familiarity with special needs doesn’t end there though.

“I have a son that is 21 that will be 22 in October and he was a twin,” said Pete. “His twin brother had severe cerebral palsy. He was in a wheelchair until he was about 5 years old and then we lost him. So my wife and I have had special needs through our whole marriage with our kids.”

Michael, their oldest son, has also dedicated himself to helping those with special needs and currently works for ABLE Inc. in Dickinson.

Michael said he doesn’t see people with disabilities any differently.

“Even though someone has disabilities, they are just like anyone else,” he said. “They enjoy the same things that people enjoy and they really, other than the fact that they mean need some kind of assistance. They really are just like everyone else and they enjoy the same things as everybody else.”

Michael, who was a wrestler in high school, said that his brother Zach also loves wrestling.

“Even when he was younger and I was still wrestling, he use to love to roll around the house and he still does till this day,” Michael said. “He loves to wrestle. That was always a nice thing to be able to do with him and for him to enjoy that. Even now, he wrestles for the wrestling club every spring.”

Michael said while growing up, his dad always made it a point that family treat Zach the same as they would with someone without a disability, which he has also transitioned into his team.

“They treat Zach just like they would treat anybody Zach’s age that didn’t have any disabilities. Zach is just a 13-year-old boy to them,” Michael said. “He expects everybody to treat Zach or anyone else with respect. I mean, he would expect two teammates with the same respect that they would treat Zach. I think it’s just the fact that my dad always instilled respect throughout the whole team.”

The baseball team treated the Special Olympic athletes with respect, but those competing on Sunday extended the same respect to each other.

“I love going to these events because these kids -- win lose or whatever -- they are just having fun and that’s where maybe we’ve lost it a little bit as a society as to what is the game really about,” Pete said.

‘It’s just special’

The Special Olympics on Sunday had athletes from the Dickinson area, Mandan and Bismarck who showed up to compete in track events, wheelchair races, relays, the long jump, shot put and softball throw.

Pete said it’s rewarding for him to see his son -- along with other athletes -- rewarded and recognized with ribbons after the events. Everyone that participated received a ribbon on Sunday just for trying their best.

“I think it’s awesome that these young men and women that struggle through life a little bit can get a little paper here too,” he said. “That’s awesome.”

Pete said it’s sometimes difficult to get out of his coach role.

“You want him to do his best, but my wife said, ‘You have to stop being a coach and be a dad here sometimes,’” he said. “I’ll be out there saying, ‘You have to do this,’ or ‘You have to do this,’ and she’ll have to tell me, ‘Just relax here and let him play and let him be a little guy’ I guess that’s the coach in me too.”

Michael said it wouldn’t matter what sport Zach plays, as long as he can be around people which shows in his favorite sports.

“I love sports,” Zach said. “My favorite is football and baseball.”

Zach is a people person, Michael said.

“He loves everyone,” Michael said. “He loves everyone with his whole heart, even strangers. He loves them so much. He finds enjoyment in every single person.”

Michael said, in part, that is because Zach is such a happy person.

“That’s one thing that I love so much about Zach, being that he was born with Down syndrome, the only time he isn’t happy is if you ruin it for him, if you ruin his great day,” he said.

Pete shadows that statement.

“It’s just special,” he said of the Special Olympics. “It’s special because these individuals, they don’t really work to be the best. They just work to do their best and they are happy. I always say a person with special needs, and I have a little sister and now we have a son that has special needs, they have an awesome day everyday.”

For three years, Zach had competed in basketball at the Special Olympics state level, but until this year he had never made a basket.

His first basket, however, was fueled by his love of McDonald’s food.

“He’s always not shooting, just passing the ball to everyone,” Pete recalled. “So I told him before the game, ‘Zachary, if you make a basket, dad is going to take you to McDonald’s.’ Boy every time he had the ball, man, he was going for the basket and he didn’t make it, didn’t score, didn’t score.”

To Zach’s dismay, the coach took him out of the game.

“But he didn’t want to leave the floor, so he was kind of upset on the bench and all of a sudden, the coach looks over and he’s checking himself in,” Pete said with a laugh. “Then, he finally made the basket and he was rubbing his tummy out on the floor. Excited as heck because he knew dad had to take him to McDonald’s now.”

Zach said his favorite meal at McDonald's is a cheeseburger and fries.

And having fun is what it's all about, Pete said.

“It’s just about having fun and doing the best you can,” he said.

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