Karen Steele returns to the Special Olympics, this time as a coach

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  • Special Olympics bocci ball coach Karen Steele gives a high five at the bocci court set up at the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games.

  • The Spaulding Youth Center Shooting Stars walk during the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games held at Memorial field in Concord on Sunday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jeffery Menard of Merrimack clears the high jump at the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games at Memorial field in Concord on Sunday, May 7, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ian Nugent of the Winnipasaukee Warriors competes in the 100-meter dash at the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games held at Memorial Field on Sunday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Ian Nugent of the Winnipasaukee Warriors celebrates after running in the 100 meter dash during the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games at Memorial field on Sunday, May 7, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Hayden Jean (center) celebrates after running in the 100-meter dash on his sixteenth birthday at the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games on Sunday, May 7, 2023 at Memorial field. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Runners start the 100 meter dash at the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games at Memorial field in Concord on Sunday, May 7, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Ian Nugent of the Winnipasaukee Warriors celebrates during the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics at Memorial field on Sunday, May 7, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Hayden Jean (center) runs in the 100-meter dash on his sixteenth birthday at the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games on Sunday, May 7, 2023 at Memorial field. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/8/2023 3:52:26 PM

Special Olympics bocci ball coach Karen Steele didn’t know much about bocci ball, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her.

She’s learning on the fly, adapting, and figuring out the best way to proceed, no matter the obstacles. It’s something she’s pretty good at, something she’s done her whole life.

She never let the brain damage she suffered at birth, which was supposed to take her life at about age 14, stop her either. And she had no plans to allow the degenerative arthritis disease that attacked her back and joints to stop her participation in the Special Olympics. The condition may have taken her off the fields and courts and snow trails as a competitor, but it wouldn’t stop her from becoming a coach of the Capital Area Cougars’ bocci ball team.

At age 29, she got her coaching feet wet Sunday at Memorial Field, where the Special Olympics New Hampshire’s Central Area Summer Games returned to Concord after a four-year hiatus thanks to COVID. 

Steele’s degenerative condition and COVID were the one-two punch that forced her to retire from competing 3½ years ago. She had won gold medals in bowling and was passionate about snowshoeing. She hoped to qualify for the USA Snowshoeing Team and race against the best in the country.

Now, she sometimes walks with a cane.

“I was dealing with physical therapy and my life was changed,” Steele said. “I was upset at first because I like the adrenalin and I was always in my own world when I competed.”

“So I became a coach instead.”

Coaching the bocci ball team was an easy challenge compared to where she’d been.

“I’m learning,” she said. “I thought some of the athletes might know, but the ones I have didn’t know either.”

Later this year, she figures to have a better grasp of the nuances involved in bocci ball. An entire season of competitions, events and fundraisers for these regional events are in place, including at the State Summer Games on June 2 and 3 at the University of New Hampshire, where volunteers are always welcome.

Steele grew up in Allenstown and now lives in Loudon. She was diagnosed with epilepsy and lived with seizures while moving through the Pembroke School District. Steele said her seizures were not the violent kind that many might visualize.

Instead, she said she would fall into a trance-like state, focusing on one spot and hearing nothing around her.

“The seizures were not noticeable,” Steele said. “But then the teacher had to wave a hand in my face to get my attention, and that would put me into a longer seizure. Everyone noticed.”

She took special education courses, instantly setting her further apart from other students. She got bullied in middle school. She says a kid once bounced a basketball off her head and received laughs, not punishment.

“I had a little faith, but I never thought it would go that far,” Steele said. “I always thought the world was against me.”

Doctors had told Steele’s parents that their daughter could suffer a catastrophic brain event by the age of 14 that could kill her. They revealed the news to Steele after she turned around 16.

“They said they were told that (my brain) would completely shut off,” Steele remembered. “That’s the reason why she was afraid of me doing things, because the doctor said I would not make it.”

The Special Olympics provided some support. In 7th grade, Steele competed in bowling, track and field, softball, volleyball, soccer and, of course, snowshoeing.

And she loved Pembroke Academy, saying everyone –teachers, administrators, fellow students – made her feel comfortable.

“Pembroke Academy changed my life,” Steele said. “I thought high school would be worse than middle school, but it changed my life. I felt welcome there.”

Around the time the pandemic hit, Steele was ambushed again, this time with degenerative arthritis disease. Her joints hurt. So did her lower back.

“Anything on the joints is hard,” Steele said. “Standing too long, running, no.”

Her seizures are medically controlled, absent for 10 years now. She’s well past 14 and says, “It’s a miracle that I can drive. I was told I’d never drive. My parents told me I was going to be brain-dead by 14 and I’m almost 30.”

She laughed at that last part. Scoffed, actually. She’ll be 30 later this month. Her athletic career is over. She’s a coach now, a seamless transition.

“I had to finally stop being stubborn and realize now that it’s never going to get better,” Steele said. “I’ll coach bowling in the fall. I can’t bowl anymore, but I can give my tips as to how I used to get my gold medals. I won a few.”


Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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