Sunday evenings are hectic for Mark Hegquist, coach and owner of the Flyaways Gold gym in Forest Lake, but they hold a special place in his heart.
For the past nine years, Hegquist has spent Sunday nights from March through June helping Special Olympics athletes hone their gymnastics skills at his gym.
“I had one girl that was involved in my regular classes, and her mom was involved with the North Branch delegation (for Special Olympics),” Hegquist said. “The North Branch delegation wanted to add gymnastics, so I did gymnastics with them.”
That experience has evolved into an annual 14-week program, which is free except for a $25 insurance deposit that is returned at the end of the season.
“I’m in a position to give back to the community,” Hegquist said.
Special Olympics, founded in 1968, provides yearlong training programs for children and adults with intellectual or physical disabilities. The organization offers 17 sporting events.
The Flyaways Gold training leads up to the Special Olympics state tournament and a banquet.
This year, 38 athletes took part in Hegquist’s program.
Lorraine Skordahl, of Chisago City, said her son, Josh, gets in the car 30 minutes early in anticipation of the sessions.
“He gets to be the rock star for once,” Skordahl said.
This year’s program drew a participant from as far as Ogilvie, near Mille Lacs Lake.
“Wherever they come from, if they don’t have something available to them in their community, we encourage them to come here,” Hegquist said.
At practice, the athletes go through rotations working on their skills in floor routines, bars, vault and beam. The boys are given the opportunity to practice dome, a preliminary training for the pommel horse.
Hegquist and his assistants also incorporate life skills into the program. The athletes set goals and are mentored to make good decisions.
Hegquist uses the “sandwich” method: compliment, correction, compliment.
“Try to give them life skills, and the rest will fall into place,” he said.
Hegquist also emphasizes education. Athletes struggling with grades are required to miss the rotation of their strongest event and spend that time on homework.
On June 28, the athletes showcased their training at the Special Olympics state tournament, where everyone receives a medal or ribbon.
Eleven-year-old Kyle Sparby, an athlete in the Flyaways Gold program, earned three medals last year in his first experience at the tournament.
“I just loved doing it,” Sparby said.
Unlike mainstream gymnastics, where parents watch from afar, parents of these athletes are encouraged to participate with their children.
“I get a satisfaction of seeing my child involved in something where he’s making friends,” said Julie Hawkinson, of Chisago City.
She also enjoys watching her son, Caleb, grow throughout the year and increase his skills.
Many parents noted an improvement of their child’s strength and balance.
Each athlete trains at different levels based on progress.
“We want to give everybody the opportunity to be the absolute best that they can be and have as many experiences (as) they can get out of this program,” Hegquist said.
The gym owner plays a major role in the athletes’ success and enjoyment.
“He’s an awesome coach,” Joy Edyvean, 14, said. “He’s my favorite.”
Hegquist cherishes assisting with milestones, such as an athlete’s first pull up.
“You get that opportunity to interact with them and become a part of their life,” Hegquist said. “They become a part of my family.”
Hegquist’s involvement with Special Olympics started well before he bought Flyaways Gold in 2005.
Starting at the age of 4, the Robbinsdale native and his cousin would rent an in-ground trampoline for a quarter an hour. By 7, he was already performing double backs and double twists.
“Sometimes landing on the trampoline … and sometimes not,” Hegquist said.
Hegquist’s uncle eventually bought an in-ground trampoline, only after the boys dug a hole.
At Robbinsdale-Cooper High School, Hegquist’s gymnastics team won state once and twice took second.
His high school coach urged team members to assist with adaptive basketball and hockey, and Hegquist gained his first experience with Special Olympics athletes.
Hegquist was active with the diving team at Bemidji State University. He also spotted for the women’s gymnastics, which is how he met his wife, Debbie.
Making a difference
In running the Special Olympics program, Hegquist is aided by Julie and Al Hawkinson, Sandy Homgren and Elsa Spitzsmuller. Parents of the participants also pitch in. The program is run entirely by trained volunteers.
“These are absolutely, totally, 100 percent giving people,” Hegquist said.
He said he plans to continue the program and in retirement hopes to find a home in the Special Olympics organization.
“If you’ve ever considered making a difference in someone’s life, this is one really great opportunity to do that,” Hegquist said. “I gain so much from all of my athletes.”