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For Jason, a Dash for the Gold Turns Into Something Special

June 26, 1986|BRIAN LANDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Jason Cooper, clad in white running shoes, red sweat pants and matching red sweat shirt, looks like any other sports enthusiast while sitting on his sofa.

After watching an auto race on television and doing an interview with a reporter, he'll work out with his father to prepare for an upcoming track and field competition.

Just a typical Sunday morning for an athlete. But Cooper, 15, isn't a typical athlete.

Cooper, who is developmentally disabled, will be one of 140 athletes representing the Westside in the California Special Olympics Summer Games at UCLA this weekend.

Frank and Carol Cooper said they first realized that their son had a problem when he was in the first grade. After eight years of tests, Cooper said the consensus is that Jason takes in information, but doesn't process it normally.

Balance Affected

Physically, that disability has affected Jason's balance. Good balance, of course, is a prerequisite for athletics.

"Jason has a small problem that has caused a lot of problems for him," his father said. "It's really frustrating for him that he has to work so hard to do the things his friends can do so easily."

So Jason never competed in any organized sports until, at the urging of Jane Wagneister, a teacher at Bancroft Junior High School in Los Angeles, his parents entered him a 5-K race at Santa Monica pier April 13.

"We're not the type to push him into things he doesn't want to do, but he said he wanted to try," Cooper said. "He didn't really practice or do anything extra. He just went out and had fun."

The Coopers said Jason finished 31st in a race with hundreds of entrants. After that, he entered the Westside Special Olympic Games at Santa Monica College on April 26.

Won Medals

He did more than just have fun there. He won gold medals in the long jump and in the 4 x 100 relay and a silver medal in the 100-meter race. "It was fun, (especially) the medals," Jason said, beaming.

But Jason admitted that he had a case of 11th-hour nerves.

"Before the first race, he said there were too many kids and he didn't want to run," his mother said. "But after he won, he wanted to run more.

"He was so confident."

And it was that new air of confidence, not the victories, that most surprised the Coopers.

"I didn't think he was going to try," said Jason's 13-year-old brother, Quinton. "I didn't think he was going to do anything."

Made Fun Of

After all, Quinton had grown up seeing how other kids made fun of Jason if he missed a ball while playing in the yard.

But the Special Olympics program emphasizes trying, not winning or losing.

"They put a lot of caring into it, too," Cooper said. "And Jason picks that up right away, even from people he doesn't know."

Mrs. Cooper said the Special Olympics is an emotional event for the parents, many of whom watch with tears in their eyes as the crowd yells and cheers for the athletes.

"Everyone else figures they can't accomplish something because they're handicapped," she said. "But they get out there and actually accomplish like normal kids. It's amazing to see an event like this."

Parents Excited

In fact, the Coopers said they are more excited than Jason is about the games being held Friday through Sunday.

"He's not the type of person who gets up in the air about things," Cooper said. "He just takes things as they come."

Jason, who will compete in the running long jump, the 100- and 200-meter races and the 4 x 100 relay, is taking the competition a little more seriously than the preliminaries in April.

Cooper said that even though Jason "isn't too enthusiastic about training," they're out practicing three times a week "because now he expects to win."

"I want to win some more medals," said Jason, exuding the confidence that any other athlete exhibits before a big match.

Ceremonies, including a parade of the athletes, a balloon release and fireworks, will open the games at 6 p.m. Friday. The games feature competition in track and field, gymnastics, swimming, basketball, softball, tennis, bowling, soccer and volleyball. On Saturday, the competition runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and on Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The Special Olympics office is at (213) 451-5767.

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