Athletes around the state of Kansas gathered at Maize South High School on May 31 for the opening ceremony of the 50th Special Olympics Kansas Summer Games.

At the event, two recipients from Leavenworth County were honored with James Hermann being inducted into the 2019 Special Olympics Kansas Hall of Fame with four other athletes and coach Vicki Lozenski winning the 2018 Special Olympics Kansas Coach of the Year.

Hermann has been a participant in Special Olympics Kansas events since 1990, according to the opening ceremony program. The program also mentions that Hermann never misses a practice or chance to compete. When he competes, he doesn’t care about winning as long as he gives his best effort. Lozenski also said the athlete is the singer for the national anthem at all Leavenworth County Special Olympics events. Hermann has also sung the anthem at the metro track meet and at a previous Summer Games. While Lozenski was excited to get her award, she said Hermann getting the honor was “better.”

“As exciting and honored as I was, it was so much fun to see James get his award,” Lozenski said. “That’s our first athlete in Leavenworth County to be inducted into the hall of fame. At least that I am aware of. That was just the icing on the cake for James to get the award.”

While Lozenski felt like it was a better honor for Hermann’s induction, the coach still said she was shocked and surprised when she found out she won the award. 

“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “And it reaffirmed my dedication to doing Special Olympics. It was just a fun night. I had all my athletes there and they all had signs saying ‘Coach Vicki’ and it was just a fun night.”

Lozenski has been involved with the Special Olympics for more than 30 years. The retired physical education teacher said she got involved after the American with Disabilities Act was passed. The new civil rights law put special education students in an age-appropriate building for school. She said that special needs high school students went from being at MacArthur Elementary and other Fort Leavenworth schools to being transferred to Leavenworth High School. 

“I was the only one in our P.E. staff that had taken an adaptive P.E. class in college,” Lozenski said. “I only had one class for it. But it was one more than every other staff member at the time. So I was elected to adaptive P.E.”

She said she learned as she went along and then fell in love with helping the special needs students. Lozenski said she first got involved with Special Olympics when she helped host a Special Olympics track meet. As an assistant on the Pioneers’ track and field staff, Lozenski said she thought it would have been easy. 

After the success of the meet, she said she met with Special Olympics officials and parents with the group deciding that they needed to do more than just a track meet for Leavenworth County so bowling was added.

“From that point on I got involved with Special Olympics,” Lozenski said. “I think partly because I could see the need that there was nothing offered through our parks and rec for special population. So we added bowling and a couple of years later we ventured out and added a team sport. So we added basketball and that’s been a huge success.”

Lozenski said all of this came at a busy time with the coach starting with the Special Olympics in 1985, getting married in 1986, having children in 1988 and 1990 and being a full-time teacher.

During all of the work that Lozenski put into the program, people in the community noticed. This past winter, William Graham, one of the Leavenworth County Special Olympics coaches, submitted a nomination form for Lozenski for the coach of the year award. 

Graham had numerous praises for the coach that he has known for more than 12 years in the nomination form.

“As the Leavenworth County Special Olympics program coordinator and lead coach, Coach Lozinski’s leadership is exceptional,” Graham said in the form. “As she leads 100 plus athletes, 15 plus assistant coaches and multiple volunteers. Her leadership style is best described as motivation, encouraging and empowering. ... Coach Lozenski sincerely cares for each athlete as she inspires them to always do their best while maintaining good sportsmanship in the process.” 

Graham pointed out the various ways Lozenski has gotten awareness about the program out with coverage from the Leavenworth Times, Kansas City Star and local Kansas City news stations.

He also mentioned how successful the “Make the Point” fundraiser has been for basketball. The free throw contest originally started to help pay for travel to the state games when it used to be played in Hays. Graham mentioned how the fundraiser has seen support from law enforcement, the Leavenworth Kiwanis Club and numerous other businesses and organizations. The fundraiser is usually held at the start of the Ralph Matzeder Invitational Basketball Tournament. The event is named after Matzeder, who was a strong supporter of the Special Olympics program in Leavenworth. This year’s tournament was canceled due to weather but the fundraiser still took place at a practice. 

When asked why Lozenski should be honored with the award, Graham said the coach is selfless.

“Coach Lozenski has selflessly given of herself in support of the Leavenworth County Special Olympics Program for more than three decades and has not been recognized,” Graham said. “She is devoted to the Special Olympics program and has dedicated herself by support and demonstrated actions to promote and empower the athletes to achieve and persevere.”

He said the program in Leavenworth County has shined due to Lozenski’s leadership and commitment. Graham gave other examples on why Lozenski was deserving of the award with camps and mentorships at the University of Saint Mary and Benedictine College. He also brought up when Lozenski and her husband worked to make the trailer safe for the athletes to participate in a recent St. Patrick’s Day Parade with handrails and easy-access steps. 

Along with Graham’s nomination, numerous letters of recommendation were written in support of Lozenski, including Rep. Jeff Pittman who said the program has “proven to be a success each year because of coach Lozinski’s hard work, determination and genuine desire to support these athletes.”

Other members of the community, including parents with athletes in the program, had similar praises in their letters of recommendation with all pointing out the work and dedication Lozenski has done for more than 30 year.

After winning the award, Lozenski was asked what has been her favorite memories with the Special Olympics.

“It is hard to pinpoint any one thing,” she said. “I think the joy you see on the athlete's faces when you have seen them doing something successfully. And just knowing how much they and their parents appreciate what you do for them.”

She said it is the little things that stood out. One example she gave was at this year’s metro track meet at Blue Valley Northwest, which the coach was also honored as the metro coach of the year. In the 4x100 relay, Lozenski said working on the hand-offs had been a hard concept the team had worked on leading up to the meet. She said that some athletes forget about it and just stand there to wait. But at the metro meet, the runners started to move before they got the batons and Lozenski said other coaches near her were in shock that the team had the concept down.

“That was one of the most exciting things that I have seen,” she said. “To see them get that hand-off on the move and the reaction from other coaches was a lot of fun and exciting for me. Not any one experience. I know it makes me proud to listen to people telling others about my athletes. It makes me proud and I feel like we have done a good job with the program.”