LAUREL — Just before Jessica Hasler, Special Olympics Montana’s reigning athlete of the year, prepares to speak in public, she sheds a few cathartic tears.
“She’ll try her speech out on me and she’ll cry a little bit,” said her mother, Laurel businesswoman Kim Farley, the statewide organization’s current coach of the year. “But when she gets up in front of people, she’s a beast. She just gets all the nerves out and she’s fine.”
Hasler, 30, also of Laurel, has Down Syndrome, which presents no apparent barrier to her ability to talk about the value of Special Olympics, an organization that has helped her vanquish a number of fears, from speaking before large groups of people to mounting a horse in equestrian competition.
"She embodies all the qualities of a person who gives their personal best while in service to others to get them to do their best," said Bob Norbie, president and CEO of Special Olympics Montana. "Through her own experience, she paints word pictures to get others involved."
Equestrian is her favorite Special Olympics sport, because, as Hasler said, "I get to bond with Tyler,” a former racehorse that, as recently as four years ago, Hasler was afraid to even be around, her mother said.
These days, she and Tyler compete in equitation, trail and walk events.
They’ll get that opportunity Friday and Saturday when Yellowstone Valley's Special Olympics chapter hosts the area games that will precede the May state games (see accompanying box).
Another of Hasler's favorite sports is floor hockey, which Farley said “can be fairly addictive.”
Athletes place their hockey stick in a hole in the puck to move the puck around the floor, passing it constantly and shooting it at the goal from time to time.
“We are indoor people,” Farley said with a laugh. “We aren’t into cold-weather sports.”
Hasler graduated from Senior High School in 2007. She works part-time as a night janitor for COR Enterprises.
By day she’s a Special Olympics global messenger. In that role she’s been the Montana Law Enforcement Torch Run’s state ambassador and, with her mother, traveled to the Bahamas last fall — the tail end of the hurricane season.
“It would rain, and then get blazing hot, humid hot,” her mother recalled. “Even in the air-conditioned hotel, we couldn’t get a breath.”
From time to time Hasler is called upon to make speeches about her Special Olympics experiences — sometimes in front of hundreds of people.
On one occasion, she spoke to 2,000 young business professionals, delivering a speech alongside Norbie. Hasler’s talk earned her a standing ovation.
“I just thanked them for all they do,” Hasler said. “I made it kind of funny.”
Farley got involved in Special Olympics about 30 years ago to help a relative with an intellectual disability.
“I was hooked after that,” she said.
She said she enjoys the mentoring aspect of coaching as much as she does helping athletes compete at their highest level.
“A lot of athletes don’t have a family. They live in group homes, and so you (as a coach) are cemented in their life,” she said. “If they enjoy their sport and enjoy what they are doing, it carries over to their life as well.”
Norbie noted that "the apple didn't fall from the tree," mother to daughter.
"Kim is dedicated to service, and she recognizes that when we give a lot, we get a lot back," he said. "She has also inspired others to get involved. It feeds our spirit, feeds our soul and makes our heart smile."
The mother-daughter duo are just two area residents being honored this year by Special Olympics Montana. Pattie Minchew of Billings is this year’s honoree for Spirit of Special Olympics.
Both Farley and Hasler said they’re counting down the days to Friday’s opening of the area games.
“The social interaction is just as much a part of the experience as the sports,” Farley said. “Our goal by 2020 is to serve 3,000 athletes statewide, because a lot of kids are graduating from high school and moving away from home (and into a group home), and they may not have anyone to advocate for them.”
After 30 years, Farley said she can’t imagine life without her energetic, talkative, engaging daughter.
“It’d be different — I just don’t know in what way,” she said. “Without me around, she’d still be doing something, because she’s very athletic.”