Special Olympian has golden attitude

Placer High grad doesn’t let Down syndrome diagnosis stop her
By Jenifer Gee Journal Staff Writer

Ben Furtado/Auburn Journal
Placer High School graduate Katie Van Groningen has won several medals in Special Olympic swimming competitions, including two gold medals from a recent regional event. Van Groningen, 19, is active in other sports, including the Special Olympics bowling team.

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At first glance Katie Van Groningen might look like a 19-year-old girl but when she dives into a pool it’s as though she transforms into an aquatic animal.

Barely ever coming up for air, Van Groningen’s methodical strokes and determined spirit have earned her numerous Special Olympics medals, including the two gold medals she recently won at a regional competition in Roseville.

“It felt pretty special,” Van Groningen said of receiving gold medals.

And despite being diagnosed with Down syndrome shortly after birth, Van Groningen said she’s never  felt different from anyone else.

That is also, perhaps, one of the most interesting aspects of Van Groningen’s life. The Placer High School graduate has a genetic, chromosomal disorder that technically puts challenges in front of her. But for Van Groningen, the challenges are not getting another fourth-place finish – “I just don’t like that number,” she said – and working toward being an independent adult.

Lori Van Groningen, Katie’s mother, said she’s learned that as a parent of a daughter with Down syndrome, that those with mental and physical disabilities live lives similar to those who don’t have those disabilities.

“They’re more like us than not like us,” Lori Van Groningen said.

Katie Van Groningen is much like any 19-year-old girl. She has favorite activities such as swimming and bowling, her favorite movie is the popular “Twilight” and she was excited to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday over the weekend.

Her mother says her worries for her daughter are similar to normal parental concern.

“I get a phone call that she’s locked out of the house and I think, ‘How can she be alone?’ but then that can happen to anybody,” Lori Van Groningen said. “It’s just the same worries as any parent. They’re just highlighted in certain areas.”

Over the next few weeks Katie Van Groningen will continue to train with her teammates for the Northern California Special Olympics summer games. Her coach, Sharon Scudero, said she’s waiting to see how many athletes she can take.

She said Katie Van Groningen is one of the few swimmers with Down syndrome on the team who is “legal” in all four swim strokes. Being legal means that a swimmer does not get disqualified. Special Olympic athletes are held to U.S. Swimming standards, Scudero explained.

“She has the best attitude ever,” Scudero said of Katie Van Groningen. “She never, ever complains and she’ll do anything you ask her and more.”

Katie Van Groningen’s determination to do well is apparent when she’s in the water. During practice as a friend and team member was jokingly splashing her, she motioned for them to stop as her coach was getting ready to time them on a lap.

However, out of the water, she’s quick to joke around with friends.

“I like them,” Katie Van Groningen said of her teammates. “They’re my friends.”

This summer she’ll take her first solo commercial airline ride to visit a friend in Colorado. She’ll take a class this year at Sierra College and she is learning life skills through a program at Placer County Office of Education.

She and her family are also looking into a special education higher education institution where students with special needs live on campus for two years and attend classes.

Lori Van Groningen said it will be hard to let go, but thinks independence for Katie Van Groningen will be good for everyone.

When asked what’s she learned from her daughter, Lori Van Groningen pondered a minute and then said she’s been more accepting of people and more sensitive to different situations.

“Life is just about the simple things,” Lori Van Groningen said. “There are far things worse than having Down syndrome.”

The Journal’s Jenifer Gee can be reached at jeniferg@goldcountrymedia.com or post a comment.

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Get to know: Katie Van Groningen

Special Olympian: Van Groningen has been training with the local Special Olympics swim team for several years. She has multiple medals, including two golds she won in freestyle relay and butterfly stroke races.

Legally swimming: Van Groningen is one of the only swimmers with Down syndrome on her team who can legally swim all four strokes in competition, which means she does not get disqualified.

Athletic interests: Van Groningen plays on a baseball team, learned to ski, and competes on the Special Olympics bowling team

Favorite movie: Twilight

She loves: Her Siamese cat, Trina

Age: 19

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