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MARILYN HAGERTY: Tommy: 'We're team USA! We're No. 1 in the world'

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Special Olympian Tommy Mikkelson, right, is welcomed home by friends Michelle Meyers and David Miner.2 / 2

About Special Olympics

Special Olympics North Dakota is a non-profit group that provides year-round physical fitness, sports training, recreation and competition in 15 sports to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. All activities are provided free of cost to the participants.

More than 1,400 athletes are served in North Dakota.

2012 marked the 40th anniversary for the group.

Saturday was a day of celebration for Tommy Mikkelson and his many friends. This young man with learning disabilities grew up in Grand Forks and last week brought home gold and bronze medals for alpine skiing during Special Olympics held in Korea. He traveled with Blaine Schultz of Jamestown, N.D., who won a silver medal in snow shoeing.

The party at Eagle's Crest café at King's Walk Golf Course was attended by a host of people, many of whom have befriended Tommy along the way. The joy and love shown is proof that it takes a village to raise a child.

In this case, it is Grand Forks. And Special Olympics Grand Forks is one of the strongest in North Dakota. The people who have been friends along the way are countless, according to Tommy's mother, Jolene Mikkelson.

She remembers going to Lewis and Clark School and the years in the 1950s and 1960s when children with learning disabilities were separated from regular classes. She recalls use of the "R" word and how it hurt those with learning disabilities.

"Thank goodness for new laws and public opinion," she said. "And for the strength of parents like Virginia Esslinger here in Grand Forks."

Mikkelson has seen firsthand the changes starting with pre-school for special needs and mentally- and physically-disabled kids being in classrooms with their peers.

"I have heard so many parents of typical children comment on how accepting they become," she said. "They learn very early that differences are common. And they accept and deal with that as a normal day."

"Kids with helping personalities come forth daily to help others with difficulties," she said. "This is one of the reasons I like this new generation so very much! They are so accepting of people in all walks of life -- because they grew up this way in the school room."

Meredith Baumann, director of Special Olympics Grand Forks, is the mother of Erin Baumann, who often speaks up on behalf of her friends with learning disabilities.

Erin Baumann was North Dakota Special Olympics Female Athlete of the Year in 2012. It gave her opportunities to speak and tell people how hurtful the "R" word can be. Like Tommy Mikkelson, she grew up with the "village" helping her. Now 31, she works at Hardee's and takes part in the flow of athletic events available through Special Olympics Grand Forks.

This weekend, there was the annual Frozen Feat walk. There is training now for state competition in basketball coming up in Minot next month. Grand Forks has four teams for people of all ages. They also bowl, play baseball, soccer and swim.

Tommy Mikkelson's world revolves around sports. For him, the R word stands for "respect." And a string of people have made his life happy. He keeps a constant smile on his face.

He is living in an apartment with David Dahlgren, whom he met through Special Olympics. Rose Barber oversees his daily needs such as getting to work and arranging for meals.

When he was in high school, SPA -- the summer performing arts program of the city schools -- seemed out of reach for Tommy. Then along came Michele Laidlaw of South Middle School. She went above and beyond to see that Tommy could take part. And the opportunity literally changed his life.

Dean Opp, the director, worked hard to make acceptance for those with learning abilities into the program. "Theater is for everyone," he said.

Tommy graduated from Red River in 2010. His mother said, "Our community is full of people who love to help. They have helped shape him into the happy young man and part of the community he is today."

Tommy Mikkelson is one of those with learning disabilities who receive help from Support Systems Inc. in Grand Forks. He is in a job training program with Development Homes Inc. and has job coaches who interact with him on the job at PS Doors.

When he is not participating in sports, Tommy usually is watching. He is a familiar face at Red River High School sports and UND games.

Kathy Mahar, director of Special Olympics North Dakota, planned to be at the party for Tommy Saturday in Eagles Crest café. She said Tommy did an excellent job representing the United States in Korea.

And she said people in Special Olympics USA in Korea will remember his smile and kindness there more than the medals. The decorations are the red, white and blue for Team USA.

Behind Tommy and others with learning disabilities there is an unending string of people around Grand Forks.

Patti Qvammen at Century Elementary School used sports to motivate Tommy's reading. From that time out, the first thing he did every morning was to pull out the sports page of the Herald. He followed Sioux sports, and UND athletes have joined to help out with Special Olympics. The Lamoureux twins -- Monique and Jocelyne -- have helped out. The men's hockey team shows up at events. And Corbyn Knight is a regular supporter.

Josh Parrill and his wife Emily are credited with helping to make the local system the best in the state.

Local directors are Tim and Meredith Baumann. And other long time supporters of Special Olympics Grand Forks are Will and Stacy Kusler and Dave and Joan Schultheis. The list is endless and no way complete. Supporters include Jamie and Jim Fagerholt, Kristin and Don O'Connor, Amy Martin and Nick Geinert.

Many Special Olympics volunteers play alongside in soccer or volleyball.

Then there is Pat Anderson, a college age volunteer, and Carolyn Jones, a student at Red River who is on hand for the soccer season. Brent Newman, swimming coach at Red River, has helped out in various ways.

It all boils down to this. It takes a village to raise a child and Tommy Mikkelson came home from Korea with the following wins:

• First race, Feb. 2: alpine ski super G, first place (gold).

• Second race: Feb. 3: alpine ski giant slalom, eighth place.

• Third race, Feb. 5: alpine ski slalom, third place (bronze).

He carried with him a gold and bronze medal and the best time ever. Word has it that U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, who will be in Grand Forks Thursday, will present Tommy with a special flag.

In Tommy's world, sports rock. Is it any wonder he was born during half time of the 1991 Super Bowl?

Reach Hagerty at or (701) 772-1055.