When Amanda Koch, Washington, plays bocce, her specialty is the long ball.
“I have more strength in my arm than I realize I do,” said Koch, 32, with a smile.
Her friend Devin Bock, 23, Union, prefers swimming, freestyle and backstroke, in particular.
Both compete with Union Special Sports for Special Olympics Missouri, and next summer they will represent the state in the 2018 Special Oympics USA Games being held July 1-6 in Seattle, Wash.
There are more than 15,300 Special Olympics athletes across Missouri, but only around 100 were selected for this year’s team, MO Magic.
Every four years, the best Special Olympics athletes from all 52 U.S. programs around the country come together to compete in the Special Olympics USA Games.
Team MO Magic includes 101 Special Olympics Missouri (SOMO) athletes, unified partners, coaches, sports managers and staff. In addition to bocce and swimming, athletes will compete in athletics, unified basketball, bowling, golf, powerlifting, softball and tennis.
Koch, daughter of Rich and Debbie Koch, Washington, and Bock, son of La Donna and Jeff Bock, Union, found out they were selected for Team MO Magic through a letter sent to their homes earlier this year, but it was a lengthy process to be selected.
Only athletes who had previously won a gold medal in their sport at either the 2016 State Outdoor Games, 2017 State Indoor Games or 2017 State Summer Games were eligible to be nominated for the team.
Koch and Bock were both nominated by their coach with Union Special Sports, Connie Pado.
Athletes who are nominated then attend a week-long selection camp held at the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Mo., where they compete against each other and also complete interviews with SOMO staff.
“They asked us what got us into our sport, who selected you for this camp, what do you like about your sport, stuff like that,” said Bock.
Pado said the committee wants to get to know the person, because being chosen for the MO Magic team isn’t just about athleticism.
“It’s about your character, your leadership, your behavior, everything,” she said. “It’s not just that they are great athletes. They have to be a great person, as well, and show different leadership skills.”
Koch admits she was nervous during her interview at selection camp, but since then has really come out of her shell.
“Now she’s going out to different schools and giving talks . . . she’s come a long way,” Pado remarked, noting that Koch recently spoke to more than 1,000 students at a district student council meeting in DeSoto.
“And I got a standing ovation,” said Koch, proudly. “It was very cool, because one of the students asked me who inspired me, and I told them my parents do.”
Bock has experienced a similar awakening, said Pado.
“He used to be terribly shy, but now when he starts talking, it almost makes me cry because I’ve seen how much growth he’s had,” she said.
Both Koch and Bock said they feel like Special Olympics has helped them develop the confidence to talk more openly with new people and to get more involved.
Making the Team
Bock was at Six Flags St. Louis with his mom when his sister called to say a letter from Special Olympics Missouri had arrived for him. They left immediately to go home to read it.
“I was very excited, very excited,” said Devin about getting the news.
“I cheered,” he said, recalling how his grandmother had sent him a gift that same day — a large framed photo of him swimming at camp. “I was very excited when I saw that too.”
Koch said she was equally excited to find out she had made the team.
“When I got to the fourth line, I knew I was going,” she said, with a big grin.
A video compilation of many of the MO Magic athletes reading their letters is posted at www.somo.org/usagames, along with biographies of each of them.
Koch, who has been with Special Olympics Missouri for 18 years and playing bocce for two, tried many of the other sports before she discovered her love and talent for bocce. She credits Pado with getting her to give it a try.
Pado said she likes all of the athletes to try each of the sports.
“If they don’t want to do it the next year, that’s fine, but I just like them to try,” she said.
Koch said she likes throwing and prefers her right arm.
During the season, she practices bocce at Union High School, but now she is practicing Sunday mornings on turf at N-Sports Rec Center in Washington. She also sometimes is able to practice with the rest of her team at a facility in Herculaneum.
They hold scrimmage games and practice target skills — Koch’s favorite.
“That’s how I can work on the long game and the short game,” she said.
At the USA Games in Seattle, Koch will compete in singles, doubles and mixed doubles for bocce.
Here at home, Koch works at Walgreens in Washington and volunteers with Exceptional Equestrians, a therapeutic riding program.
She is involved with Developmental Services of Franklin County Life Ops.
“We volunteer at Willow Brooke Assisted Living, learn how to cook, work on social skills, work on assertive communication, and much more,” Koch wrote in a blog post for Special Olympics Missouri.
Bock started swimming when he was 12 or 13, but then took a break before taking up the sport again last year with as much enthusiasm as ever.
“When that horn goes, I just take off,” he remarked.
“He’s a very good swimmer,” said Pado. “Very fast.”
At the USA Games in Seattle, Bock will compete in his favorite strokes of freestyle and back stroke, as well as his most challenging — butterfly.
“I’m still learning it. That’s the only one I really need to work on,” he said.
He also will compete in the relay.
Bock hopes the water in the pool will be warmer in Seattle than it was at the selection camp in Mexico, Mo., where the water was so cold his fingers were turning blue.
Here at home, Bock is a big fan of the Saint Louis Blues hockey team. He lists right winger Vladimir Tarasenko as his hero, not only because he’s a great hockey player, but also because he has a good sense of sportsmanship.
Bock works for Union High School as a dishwasher.
The MO Magic athletes recently met for a team practice in Fayette, Mo., and they will meet again in March.
Earlier this month they met to get fitted for their uniforms and gear.
At the end of June, all team members will meet in Kansas City for a send-off celebration before flying out to Seattle together. Athletes will stay together in their own “Olympic village,” where there will be extra activities for them.
Family and friends will be able to watch them compete, but they won’t get to stay with them.
Events will be held at top athletic facilities, including the University of Washington, King County Aquatics Center and Federal Way’s Celebration Park, with news coverage from ESPN.
Some of the athletes competing at the USA Games will be selected to compete at the 2019 World Summer Games to be held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in March 2019.
Each MO Magic athlete needs to raise $3,000 to help cover the cost of their airfare, uniforms, equipment, training camps, food and other expenses for the USA Games.
Koch and Bock both have been working hard to raise their share. They each have a webpage where people can make donations to support them:
Union Special Sports held a Dining to Donate event at Johnny’s Thursday evening and is planning more at other restaurants in the future.
The program holds several fundraisers throughout the year to cover its expenses, including hot dog sales at Frick’s in Union.
“Right now we are raising funds for these two athletes,” said Pado.
Last year Union Special Sports raised $6,000 for the SOMO Training for Life Center in Jefferson City in memory of two Union athletes and a coach who passed away.
For more information on MO Magic, Koch, Bock or any of the other Missouri athletes competing in the 2018 USA Games, people can go to www.somo.org/momagic.