While the vast majority of 14-year-olds are still in bed at 6 a.m. on Saturday mornings, O’Conner Anderson III is preparing to hit the ice. He rises early, eats breakfast, grabs his skating gear and heads to Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Southeast Washington, where for the last six years, he’s trained and prepared for competition.
His hard work and perseverance recently paid off when the Washington, D.C. resident won big at the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Gangneung, South Korea. O’Conner returned with two gold medals and a bronze medal in short track speed skating.
“His goal has always been to get better and the Special Olympics selected him for the U.S. team given his talent and dedication,” said Nathaniel Mills, O’Conner’s coach. “They thought he’d be a good representative from the District for the world games.”
O’Conner, who attends Woodson High School in Northwest, won gold in Division 12 of the 500-meter race and Division 15 of the 333-meter race. He took a bronze in Division 8 of the 777-meter race. Anderson also participated on a relay team with U.S. Olympic gold medalist and short track speed skating star Apolo Ohno.
Mike Bovino, vice president of development for Special Olympics D.C., said the world games are held once every four years, like the Winter Olympics. He said Team USA included 152 athletes from around the country, including O’Conner, who was accompanied to South Korea by his father. A total of 2,300 athletes from 110 countries competed.
“It’s a tremendous life-changing experience,” said Bovino. “When you’ve grown up in the city and have a disability, oftentimes what you are exposed to is limited. He had the chance, not only to leave the country, but to travel across the world and meet people from all over the world. That makes him a more well-rounded young man.”
O’Conner’s skating career started at Fort Dupont when he was 8 years old. He said he was drawn to the sport for one simple reason.
"I want to go fast," he said.
Mills, who competed at three Winter Olympic Games as a speed skater, took O’Conner under his wing after he saw natural talent in him.
“He had an aptitude for speed and skating in general and he had the desire to get even better,” Mills said. “So, we invited him to participate in the Saturday morning speed skating class.”
Started by Mills in 2002, the Saturday morning classes are free, which makes it available to those who otherwise would not be able to experience the costly sport.
O’Conner’s godmother, Cheryl Johnson, said he suffers from ADHD, but that has not hindered his ability to excel at skating.
"He's a natural born athlete," said Johnson. "He loves to compete and he loves to win, but he's not a sore loser. He's just very dedicated."
Bovino said excelling in sports gives young people with disabilities a chance to “get the respect they deserve,” but that can elude them.
“People get to see their capabilities,” he said.
On Feb. 20, elementary and middle school students are scheduled to participate in the Special Olympics D.C. Speed Skating Championships at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena. The event is open to the public.
Most will compete against other athletes, but there are no additional competitors at O’Conner’s level.
“He will race himself to try to eclipse his best time in South Korea,” Bovino said. O’Conner’s personal best in the 500 meters was 53.81, he said.
Although this was his first time competing in the Special Olympics World Games, victory isn’t new to O’Conner. He also has won the Shani Davis Trophy, named for the African-American Olympic champion, and several victories in local competitions.
And despite attaining the highest award in his sport, Special Olympics gold, this isn’t the end for the gold medalist.
“His goals are getting bigger,” Mills said, adding that O’Conner is eyeing a run at the national speed skating championships. His two weeks in South Korea “improved his confidence” and made him look “taller, bigger and faster,” the coach said.
O’Conner returned to the United States on Feb. 8 and was back on the ice at Fort Dupont the next morning.
“He’s had a lot of dedication for a long time now and his results in South Korea reflect his determination and persistence,” Mills said.
For more information on Special Olympics programs, visit www.specialolympicsdc.org.