El Cajon Gulls to represent USA in Austria for Special Olympics

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In early March, the El Cajon Gulls will board a flight with the Department of Defense, readied with new equipment and freshly fussed-over uniforms, and fly to Graz, Austria for the 2017 Special Olympic World Winter Games. They will carry with them the same hope of success and the same mantel of responsibility to represent the United States of America as Olympic teams before them, but their vision of glory, their idea of success is much more altruistic than a medal and drives deep into the heart of athletics.

In early March, the El Cajon Gulls will board a flight with the Department of Defense, readied with new equipment and freshly fussed-over uniforms, and fly to Graz, Austria for the 2017 Special Olympic World Winter Games. They will carry with them the same hope of success and the same mantel of responsibility to represent the United States of America as Olympic teams before them, but their vision of glory, their idea of success is much more altruistic than a medal and drives deep into the heart of athletics.

“I get excited thinking about it,” said Christopher Hurn, one of the 13 Gulls who will be headed to Austria next year. “I feel nervous to be on a plane, but it’s going to be neat to meet different people from different countries.”

Christopher, 20, the coach’s son and an accomplished athlete himself, summed up in one sentence what the rest of his teammates seem to feel for their coming Olympic-sized adventure: what a great opportunity to meet new people. 

The El Cajon Gulls have known since January that they are Olympics bound. They will be joining 3,000 other competitors hailing from 110 countries. 

“There are two floor hockey teams going for the U.S., one from New York and ours,” said Rodney Hurn, Christopher’s father and the head coach of the Gulls. “Over the last three years, they take all the gold medal teams and draw from a hat. We were actually fifth, but the other ones didn’t have enough athletes that were old enough.” 

Competition age is 16 for the Special Olympics and teams of up to fifteen players are permitted. The Gulls will be taking 13, each with a dynamic background, each with a hope for what the Games in Austria will bring, each with an unbreakable bond of loyalty and affection for their fellow teammates. 

Christopher is in a transition program at Adult Foothills, sponsored through Granite Hills High School, where he also ran track. In addition to running and shoving a puck, Christopher plays soccer, basketball and golf, and has a shelf of medals to prove his athletic prowess.

Floor hockey is played in a gym instead of an ice rink, and the hockey sticks are just that: sticks. There is no blade. The pucks, too, are different. Large, fluffy disks with a donut hole in the middle, floor hockey pucks can reach screaming speeds and get quite a lot of air when driven by the right player. No mean goal, the shaft of the hockey stick must tug, push and lift the puck from inside the donut center, allowing it to cascade across the glossy floor.

Like most of his teammates, Christopher has been playing floor hockey for nearly a decade, and with nearly the same people. 

“We were looking for programs for Chris, something where he fits in, and we found floor hockey with the Special Olympics,” said Rodney.

Rodney said he played ice hockey as a young man, but has enjoyed floor hockey just as much. After two years as assistant coach for the Gulls, Rodney is now the head coach. He said he often feels more like the student.

“They all teach me,” he said. “I learn more from them than they do from me.”

John Carlo, 19, a student at Diego Valley Charter School who has been playing with the Gulls since 2010, said Coach Rodney is something special. Competition is viewed differently by Coach Rodney and the team than it is in high school, said “Big John,” who noted that some personalities can be a little extra focused and unforgiving in a typical athletic setting.

“I can actually have fun and be myself here,” he said. “Coach Rodney is a good coach. He cares more about having fun than winning.” 

Rodney said he believes his players, who range in age from 17-53, will do better if they are all enjoying themselves.

“That’s my rule,” he said. “Don’t watch the scoreboard, just have fun.” 

It must be working, because the Gulls are a gold medal team.

But they have a lot more work to do to reach Olympic caliber in 10 weeks. 

“Our biggest worry is if they’re going to have enough stamina to get through all those games,” said Kimberly Hurn, Christopher’s mother, the coach’s wife and the team’s manager. “We did a program called team wellness with the team to help build their stamina to help them get geared up for all the exercise.”

The Gulls will be playing two weeks of nearly back-to-back games at the Special Olympics. The team has been in overdrive to gear up for the drastic change of pace.

One such measure is a weeklong training camp in Killington, Vermont. Trekking up to the Northeast United States just before Christmas, the team spent the week working on skills and strategy. 

Casey Lucore, 19, the team’s goalie, said there is definitely a little added pressure in the Olympic venue.

“When you compare that to what we’ve done normally, it’s a whole different thing,” he said. “It’s exciting but at the same time, you don’t want to be embarrassed.”

One of the benefits to the trip is learning new goalie skills, said Lucore. He said he has been watching videos of professional goalkeepers to learn new plays and then practicing them with Coach Rodney.

Unfortunately, he dislocated his knee during a game in November and has had to pull back a little until he heals completely. Although he accompanied his team to the Vermont training camp, he said he had a special workout routine to accommodate his injury.

Lucore said he expects to be fully recuperated by February and is looking forward to joining his team.

“I honestly didn’t think it would happen,” he said of their selection for the Special Olympics. “I had hope but I wasn’t positive it would happen.” 

Lucore said there is no one else he would rather go to Austria with than this team.

“These guys have been my best friends since I was a kid,” he said. “There’s one guy on here, Thomas, who I’ve played with since I was five years old. We all love each other and as long as we have that unity, I think we’re going to be great as a team.” 

Confidence in team dynamics or chemistry or whatever it may be called from season to season is typical of most sports programs. There is that magical moment in a season when suddenly an athlete realizes his teammates are people he cares about immensely, so running the extra mile or taking the extra hit becomes a joy because he is doing it for a friend.

The Gulls reached that point a long time ago.

“I wouldn’t say we’re a team,” said Carlo. “We’re a family, because we’ve been together so long.”

Haley James, 19, is the only girl headed to Austria in a Gull’s uniform. She said sometimes she feels like the mother duck on the team taking care of all the boys.

“They know I’ll try to be there for them as much as I can,” she said. “This team is like a family to me.”

James currently commutes for practices from Arizona where she is studying culinary arts at Central Arizona College. She said she was only just recently moved from the junior team to the “big team” and could not be happier, especially with Austria on the horizon.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” she said. “Representing America for me is so awesome. I remember as a little kid watching the Olympics on TV and thinking, ‘I want to get there.’” 

Like most athletes, James’s glory road has been rife with difficulties. Its redemption, she said, has not been in medals but in finding friendship.

“I was born premature and I was bullied all my life,” she said. “When I started as a nine year old, floor hockey gave me an opportunity to meet people who were like me. Since then, I’ve been close to the people on our team and we’ve been playing so long that we build those relationships.” 

Floor hockey, and the gentle souls who make up its team, seem to have been a saving grace for many.

Thomas Selbe, 23, the aforementioned friend of Lucore, has been playing with the Gulls since 2006.

“It’s allowed me to get out of the house once in awhile,” he said. “It’s allowed me to make new friends and do something that I love. It’s made me a very happy person.”

Selbe said he is nervous about the transition into a new time zone and new surroundings at the Special Olympics. Although he has done some traveling, many on the team have not. They will be leaving their homes for more than a weekend for the first time in their lives this February. 

But nothing can dampen the excitement.

“I still can’t believe it’s actually happening,” said Selbe. “I’m looking forward to having the time of my life.” 

The team is particularly excited about the new gear they will get as they represent the US. 

“Their helmets are now getting airbrushed with the Olympic logo on them and that’s something they’ll get to keep,” said Rodney. 

But the team will tell you that the most exciting prospect of the Special Olympics was also the most exciting prospect of joining the El Cajon Gulls: a chance to make friends.

Ryan Woods, 20, a student at Cuyamaca’s transition program said he is looking forward to meeting people from other places at the Special Olympics.

“I feel really pumped,” he said. “I’m excited about being able to make new friends and I’m excited to play against different countries. We’ve always been waiting for this moment.”

Woods, like Christopher, is a well-rounded athlete, competing in basketball, football and swimming along with floor hockey. 

Sports is no small passion for these athletes, but the redeeming purpose behind the competition for them is something often overlooked in most sports programs. The Gulls know instinctively what many athletes take for granted, that the worth of any human endeavor is given value by the people met along the way.

When the Special Olympics World Games are over, the Gulls will return, hopefully with medals and fanfare. But for them, the story will not be over. It will just be another chapter in their journey of sports and friendship.

“I just want to keep being an athlete,” said Christopher. “Special Olympics changed my life because I can be with friends.”

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