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Winning sweet, but its all about fun at Special Olympics State Games
Cumming horseman among Special Olympians savoring competition
Natalie Watkins of Canton leads her horse Reinbeau around one of the barrels set inside the rink at the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center Saturday morning during the Special Olympics 2016 State Fall Games and Horse Show. The event concludes today.

Special Olympics Georgia

State Fall Games and Horse Show

Today: Bocce, 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; softball, 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

Where: North Hall Park and Laurel Park

Horse Show: 8 a.m., Trail Competition

Where: Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center

More info:

Ten weeks and at least 25 hours worth of training led up to the moment when Dustin Thomas entered the dust-floored ring of the Chicopee Woods Agricultural Center.

While he sat confidently, complete with a big smile on his face, Dustin’s mom Lynn Brecht stood against the railing, watching and waiting for her son to show off his hard work.

Atop his equine teammate Jasmine at the starting line of this year’s Special Olympics Horse Show, Dustin represented Brecht Stables, also known as Dustin’s Place, in Cumming.

“The name started from people calling it Dustin’s place, like, ‘Let’s all go over to Dustin’s place,’ and it all went from there,” Brecht said.

Brecht opened her own stables and now runs the show there, always with Dustin by her side. He’s now 15 years old.

“He’s still a teenage boy. He flirts with the girls, he wants to play football,” Brecht said.

Dustin is no newbie to the scene; he’s competed in the past five Olympics on behalf of his mom’s stables.

This year, 13 volunteers came along to help the process move more efficiently and smoothly.

One of those volunteers was 14-year-old Sierra Penley. She’s been volunteering at the stables for two years since her family moved to Cumming. Sierra had worked with the special-needs children at her school and took riding lessons.

“I love kids and horses, so it was perfect for me,” Sierra said.

She saw a flyer at a burger joint and begged her mom to let her volunteer at the stables and has been dedicating her free time to the Brecht family since.

“The feeling you get when you know you did something good is why I keep volunteering,” Sierra said.

And that’s why Brecht said she keeps working hard to get her kids to the Olympics each year.

“It’s all about the kids for me,” Brecht said.

She likes to give troubled teens a place to be and give them a purpose. “They are so happy even with last place.”

Sarah Boudreau, barn manager for the stables, agrees.

“It’s really rewarding,” Boudreau said. “It’s about them having fun, it’s not about winning.”

All of Dustin’s hard work, and the work of the stables’ volunteers, paid off. He tied for first place in the Western horsemanship and placed first in the unified drill team competition.

“It’s really good for him,” Brecht said. “We are having an awesome year.”

Six other athletes competed in the Olympics with Dustin, who was born with Down syndrome.

“We didn’t know until he was born,” said Brecht, age 20 at the time.

Since then, Dustin’s life has been a challenge. He stopped breathing at home, underwent open heart surgery, took medication to keep his heart pumping, had multiple ear tubes, suffered RSV, phenomena and bronchitis every year, and has undergone genetic counseling.

In 2007, Brecht was working toward a master’s degree in human resource development when Dustin again contracted pneumonia. He was in an oxygen tent, and on an air tube for a full week, Brecht said.

After he made a full recovery, she couldn’t go back to her job. Being a single mom, she needed a way to make ends meet and decided to embrace her upbringing around horses.

Now she puts all of her energies into the stables. For Saturday’s events, Brecht’s volunteers arrived at the Chicopee center at 4:45 a.m. to help ride the horses around the ring and get them used to it. Most of the volunteers and Brecht stayed until 11 p.m. Saturday night to run the horses through Sunday’s trail set-up.

“This is my family,” she said.

Brecht estimates that there are usually about 15 to 20 stables at the Olympics each year, with even more additions this year.

One of the groups, called Your Angel Wings, came on behalf of the Walton County Special Olympics team.

Part-time volunteer and full-time police officer Lauren Kowalski spent her Saturday helping move horses from the stalls to the ring and making sure the athletes were where they needed to be.

“We make sure we have beginner-safe, friendly horses,” Kowalski said.

The organization focuses mostly on children with autism, with nine athletes competing.

Another group, Haven Hills, came all the way from Fairburn to compete. The group, run by director Sara Carter, usually brings 21 to 24 competitors, but this year 14. That included Tariah Merles, who rode Dulce the horse into the ring in her pink and blue tie-dyed shirt.

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