By DALE SHRULL
Special Olympics have been a life-changing experience for Victoria Smith.
This weekend, she will compete in the swimming events at the Colorado Summer Games, and in a few months the recent Central High School graduate will be off to college at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.
“I’m so excited, I feel so blessed to be able to go to college,” she said, barely able to contain her excitement.
For Tori, as she is known, there have been so many blessings along the way after so many hardships.
Her mother, Deana Guzman, said graduation was an “incredible day.”
“Sure there was sadness, but the amount of sheer joy to see your child achieve something you never knew she was capable of, is so amazing,” Mom said. “It’s hard to describe how much pleasure and joy I have for her to get here.”
Deana is completely honest when she talks about her daughter and how the expectations were muted during the early years.
“We had no expectations of where she would get,” she said, then paused to give the moment some reflection. “When you have a special needs kid, you don’t have any expectations, because, a lot of people won’t say this, but you have no idea how long she will live.”
It was a tough go for Tori right from her birth when she was diagnosed with Tar Syndrome, which affected her bones. Tori’s arms are shorter than normal, her legs were dislocated and she had a bleeding disorder.
Deana, a 1990 Grand Junction High School graduate, moved the family to Denver for eight years so Tori could receive the medical treatments she needed.
Tori had to endure more than 20 surgeries and various procedureson different parts of her body over the years — specifically on her hands, arms and legs.
Then, when Tori was in the sixth grade, the family discovered Special Olympics.
There’s no sadness in Deana’s voice when she talks about the difficult times but the excitement and enthusiasm bubble over when she talks about what Special Olympics has done for Tori.
“It has given her the freedom to be herself,” she said. “It was bowling, then track and field, and that was awesome. It’s one of the most amazing things you will ever see. Those kids love being there for each other.”
Deana, who also serves as a volunteer swim coach, again lets the refection soak in for a moment.
“Everyone is a friend. That was it, it was like ‘wow,’ she finally found a spot where she fits,” she said. “They don’t care about who she is, how she looks, they are just her friends.”
Athlete of the year and more
Tori’s excitement completely obliterates her mom’s level of excitement, and it hit the stratosphere when Tori learned of three amazing recognitions.
First, she was the only Western Slope athlete to be selected to the Colorado Special Olympics swim team for the USA Games. Second, she was selected as the 2018 Colorado Female Special Olympics Athlete of the Year, and in October, Tori will be inducted into the Special Olympics Hall of Fame.
“It was like, what did I do to deserve something like this, it was a very prideful moment but most of all, it was humbling,” Tori said about the Hall of Fame induction.
It was another thrilling day when heard that she would compete with the national team at the USA Games in Seattle from July 1-7.
“All I remember was crying and there was pure excitement and joy. It was a complete honor and blessing,” she said.
Swimming with the high school team
Both Tori and Deana credit Special Olympics for helping Tori grow physically and mentally over the years.
Tori competed in track and field, and soccer at the beginning, but the pain in her surgically repaired legs became too much.
“Running is not good for her, so swimming is the perfect sport for her,” Deana said.
With her physical challenges, Tori was in the pool when she was around 6 months old.
“I didn’t have a lot of mobility when I was young and my physical therapist said ‘Let’s put her in the pool,’ ” Tori said with a laugh.
Swimming was the perfect sport on multiple levels.
“It was so appealing because I grew up watching Team USA swimmers in the Olympics and paralympics and they were so inspiring,” Tori said. “And swimming is such an adrenaline rush.”
Tori wasn’t only a competitor in the pool with Special Olympics, she was also a member of the combined Centra/Palisade Wardogs swim team.
“It was amazing to compete with the high school swim team,” she said. “With my physical disabilities, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Special Olympics. I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that.
“My teammates were so accepting, they really wanted me on the team.”
She was a member of the team for her freshman and sophomore years before the team merged with the Grand Junction team.
After swimming, she turned her attention to speech and debate at Central.
“My passion is advocating and speaking, and my mom calls me a chatterbox because I talk so much,” Tori said with a big laugh. “I wanted to hone those skills and the speech team was where I needed to be, and now I’m going to study communications in college.”
She credits her time with the Wardogs and the courage it gave her in helping her be more at ease as a public speaker as well.
“For me to use my voice and speak for the athletes who can’t, is what I love,” she said. “The work I do, volunteering, coaching younger athletes, helping other swimmers and advocating for them, it’s one on my favorite parts of the job.”
The State Games
This weekend, Tori will be back for the Colorado State Games and it will be another day filled with thrills and goosebumps as she walks into Stocker Stadium for the opening ceremonies.
“It’s so humbling because it’s enormous. You have thousands of people in the stadium and we’re all cheering for one another, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said.
Then when competition day arrives, Tori’s competitive spirit ignites.
“The next day it’s time to get your groove on, it’s time to get serious,” she said.
Deana’s pride in Tori is always present in her words and her smile.
Mom is packed with pride every day and again talks about how Special Olympics helped shape her daughter into the woman that she’s become because the organization thinks “outside the box.”
“It’s such an amazing feeling,” she said. “This is my child being included, my child doing a sport, my child being free.
“This is my child not being put into a box.”
After what Special Olympics has done for her, Tori plans to always be an advocate.
“It has grown so much and I’m proud to be an advocate for Special Olympics” she said. “It’s so incredibly amazing and it’s so much of a blessing in my life.”
Tori always points to Special Olympics for giving her courage to be herself and giving her strength to overcome her physical challenges.
“I couldn’t even walk without serious pain and now I’m walking and swimming and using my legs every day with minimal pain,” she said. “I’m stronger and faster, it reminds me where I came from.