By Will Seymour
CHESTERFIELD, Va. – Travis Hunter’s attraction to speed skating is right there in the name.
“I like to go fast,” the 23-year-old said.
Hunter will have the chance to showcase his speed on a big stage at the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games, set for Jan. 29-Feb. 5 in South Korea.
The opportunity to compete at one of Special Olympics’ biggest events is a reward for hard work and dedication, but also another step in his continuing personal development, an area where sports plays a central role.
Hunter, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2, was a quiet kid when he landed in Marjorie Loya’s middle-school classroom.
“If you led conversations, (he’d go along,)” Loya said. “He was developing his personality.”
After being introduced to Special Olympics through Loya and the school system, the playing fields of several sports became a laboratory for growth. In addition to his time on the ice, Hunter plays softball and basketball and competes in roller skating.
He’s also comfortable out on the water; a favorite activity is water skiing behind the family boat. Other pastimes include camping and watching television, in particular shows about history.
If Hunter wasn’t all that expressive in social situations, it wasn’t the case in competition. As with many young athletes, he struggled to accept reverses as well as victories.
“He had to learn how to lose gracefully,” Loya said.
With the experiences gained over a decade of competition, Hunter is now a Special Olympics veteran. Loya said Hunter serves as a role model to younger athletes, both in his performances on the ice and by helping other adjust and cope with the practicalities of competition such as travel or just spending time away from home.
He broke a bone roller skating just before a state Games a few years ago. Despite being unable to compete, Hunter didn’t take the opportunity to take the weekend off. Instead, he made the trip to support his teammates.
That desire to help out is a family trait. The Hunters are a fixture in the local Special Olympics community; Loya, 29-year volunteer with Special Olympics, calls them “as supportive a family as I’ve seen.”
Hunter skates often with friends; his association with a high school alumni team that competes in skating, basketball and softball provides an opportunity to keep in touch with schoolmates after graduation. He graduated from Matoaca High in Chesterfield in 2011.
A lot of these children have grown up together and care about each other,” his mother, Diane said.
That care, and the camaraderie of sport, creates a space where Travis can be himself.
“When he’s playing you can see the true Travis enjoy and engage,” Diane said.
That engagement now happens in other venues as well. Travis has spoken at Special Olympics functions and fundraisers, a long way from the child who preferred to remain silent.
“He’s funny now,” Loya said. “I learned that after I saw him and his dad tease each other for an hour and a half at a meeting.”
For all the laughs he has with family and friends, speed skating is still serious business.
Hunter was selected for Team USA through a lottery open to gold-medal winners from the Virginia state Games. Hunter is intent on arriving in South Korea a better skater than ever.
“He’s been working and working and working since his name was drawn,” Loya said. “He’s the most prepared athlete I’ve sent to a major competition.”
Hunter and the rest of Team USA got another boost at a team training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y. Dec. 10-14. There, the athletes met each other and the coaching staff for the first time.
Hunter may have benefitted from the week more than most. In Lake Placid, he received instruction from dedicated speed skating coaches, a resource he doesn’t have access to at home.
“Everything they taught him, he’ll keep,” Loya said.
Beyond the specialized coaching, there’s another reason to think Hunter will post some quick times at the Winter Games.
In South Korea, the competition will be spread out over a week rather than the one or two days that is the norm for Hunter’s local and regional competitions. Even though his events at the Winter Games will be at longer distances than Hunter is accustomed to, up to 777 meters, the more-relaxed schedule should allow he and the other athletes to put forth their best efforts.
Whatever Hunter’s actual results turn out to be, his family will be in the stands. Diane, husband Gray, and Travis’ brothers Will, 25 and Neil, 11, are all making the trip.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Diane Hunter said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Along with enjoying all of the competition, the Hunters will be occupied with helping Neil, who is in fifth grade, create news-style reports to send back to the States via a school website.
Loya will also be eager to hear news from the Games.
“I’m really proud of (Travis),” Loya said. “He’s grown into a man.”