CHURCH HILL — The Special Olympics provided Volunteer High School junior Gabe Morelock with the experience of a lifetime: a chance to compete in last week’s 2018 USA Games in Seattle, where he walked away with a silver and two bronze medals.
But the people closest to Gabe know that the Special Olympics have given him much more than medals.
Gabe was born with autism, and when he was a baby doctors told his mother they didn't know if he would ever speak — or crawl for that matter.
The Special Olympics changed Gabe’s life
When Hawkins County Special Olympics chairperson Christy Thacker began working with Gabe in middle school, he was still very introverted and rarely smiled or engaged his teachers and classmates.
"I met him five years ago through Special Olympics when he was in middle school and at that time he didn't really talk," Thacker told the Times News on Monday. "He usually gave you a mean look. He didn't smile for pictures or any of that stuff. Now Gabe is very involved. He's very talkative now. He's not afraid to talk to people. He's socially inclusive with his peers. He's one of the most popular kids in the school. Everybody loves him. He's come a long way socially."
Thacker attributes much of Gabe’s progress to his participation in the Special Olympics program.
VHS Special Olympics among the state’s best
Volunteer High School is one of only eight schools in the state with a Unified Special Olympics program, and it was the first school in the state to host a Unified track meet.
During Unified meets, students with and without intellectual disabilities compete together on the same playing field.
As a Unified squad, varsity athletes and Special Olympians at Volunteer train together on the same field, and then travel together to compete in local, regional and state meets.
Thacker said she believes the competition brings out the best in Gabe.
She added, "He's able to be like his peers. He's on the same playing field as them. He's able to go out and do the same things the school teams are doing. When we host the track meet here every year, the whole school comes out to watch them. They feel so included. They love that."
What events did Gabe medal in?
Last week at the USA Games in Seattle, Gabe earned a silver medal in the 100 meter dash, and his two bronze medals were in the javelin and the running long jump. He also received a fifth place pin and ribbon in the 200 meters.
He told the Times News on Monday he barely missed winning gold in the 100 meter dash.
"I always try my best," Gabe said. "I did try (to win gold)."
“I worked us both to death”
Gabe’s success was a pleasant surprise considering he didn't earn any medals in the state Special Olympics meet earlier this year in Nashville.
He earned his trip to the Seattle games through a drawing.
Ali Thompson, who has coached Gabe for the past three years, said they trained hard to get Gabe ready for Seattle. They worked out after school, and she also provided him workouts to do at home as well.
She said the state competition gave Gabe the confidence to know he has the ability win if he works hard.
"I worked both of us to death," Thompson said. "He's a good runner, but he really improved on the running long jump. For him to get bronze was awesome. He really worked hard."
A thrill for mom as well
Gabe's mother, Jessica Isely, said competing in the Olympics is the most exciting thing that ever happened to Gabe. It was an eventful week for both of them that she never could have imagined for him when he was little.
"When he was a baby they said he wouldn't even speak, so this is an amazing thing," Isley said. "When he was little he didn't speak until he was 3 years old. They didn't know if he would ever speak, or crawl. But he did."
Not just crawl, but run.
"Very fast," Isely said.
There was a mini-reception for Gabe on the football field at Volunteer Monday afternoon where he expressed gratitude to all the people who helped make his trip to Seattle possible: his friends, coach, classmates, supporters, sponsors, church and everyone else who had a hand in it.