People think they're mother and daughter. Happens all the time. Shirley Wilson, 62, and Debbie Thiess, 42, bowl together, go to Baysox games together, even work together on occasion.
But mother and daughter?
They are coach and athlete. They are teacher and pupil. They are, to borrow Thiess' phrase from a T-shirt she once designed for the Special Olympics, friends forever.
Before Thiess met Wilson she mostly just sat at home, like so many mentally retarded adults. Now she stands as a powerful symbol of the way the Special Olympics can transform a person's life.
"She had all these wonderful qualities," said Patricia Krebs, president and CEO of the Maryland Special Olympics (MDSO). "They were there. They just needed to be brought out."
They were visible last night, when Thiess recited the pledge of allegiance during the opening ceremonies for the state summer games at Towson State's Minnegan Stadium.
They'll be visible this weekend, when she competes for a medal in duckpin bowling. And they'll be visible in October, when she participates in the Athlete Congress, a forum in which athletes address Special Olympics issues.
As always, Wilson will be at her side.
She made a deal with the three bowlers she took to the qualifying tournament in Washington County -- if one of them earned a gold medal, she'd stay overnight as their coach at the summer games.
Thiess won the gold.
"I told her I was going to win, but she said, 'We'll see,' " recalled Thiess, who has an 89 average, with a high game of 120. "I said, 'All right.' "
Wilson nodded, smiling.
"She's very confident. She has a plan," Wilson said. "She watches the scores. She always tries to be one or two pins ahead of everybody."
It's almost as if Thiess and Wilson were destined to meet -- they once lived a block apart in East Baltimore, and now live two miles apart in Dundalk.
Wilson, a Special Olympics volunteer since 1975, worked most of her adult life as a secretary, then joined the MDSO staff five years ago.
"I see the faces, it lights me up," she said.
Thiess represents a new breed of Special Olympian. She competed as an athlete in high school, but didn't rediscover the program until her nephew, Michael Ruth, 23, became involved.
A kid in a track meet -- that's the enduring image of a Special Olympics athlete. Eunice Kennedy Shriver started the program in Rockville in 1968. It is much more than a track meet now.
In Maryland alone, nearly 7,000 athletes participate. Approximately 1,100 will compete in five events this weekend -- track and field, aquatics, equestrian, softball and bowling.
"The baby boomers are getting older, and you have baby boomers with developmental disabilities -- they're getting older, too," Krebs said. "We needed to come up with something for the aging population."
Bowling is just one option. Krebs said the Special Olympics also offer boccie and cross country skiing (Maryland athletes train with in-line skates). Golf will be the next sport introduced, with the assistance of the PGA.
Young and old, male and female, there's something for everyone. And yet, in a state with 100,000 eligible participants, Krebs said the program could accomplish so much more.
"I think of what it's done for Debbie in her life," Krebs said. "I know there are people we aren't reaching. There are a lot more people out there like Debbie used to be, who have nothing."
Thiess' parents are deceased; she lives with her sister, brother-in-law and nephew. Asked to describe her life before the Special Olympics, she said, "I just stayed around the house, didn't do much. I did some baby-sitting, that's about it."
Now she plays basketball, competes in fishing tournaments, volunteers at the MDSO office in Columbia. Thiess stuffs and labels envelopes, organizes and counts medals. She's such a good worker, Krebs plans to hire her part-time.
This is a woman with something to offer, not someone who should spend her days at home, watching TV. Wilson coaches 17 bowlers, some with severe disabilities who are confined to wheelchairs. Thiess acts as her assistant.
"Deb helps me along if I have trouble," Wilson said. "I've been sick at times. She's pitched in and helped with things."
Thiess also assisted the Maryland bid for the 1999 International Games, helping make a presentation in Washington, D.C. (The games were awarded to Chapel Hill, N.C.)
And she was one of two athletes from Baltimore County nominated for the Athlete Congress, a two-day event that will be held at the Legislative Services Building in Annapolis on Oct. 3-4.
Again, Wilson will accompany her -- "She likes getting into things where I have to go along," she said. But this is more than a bond between coach and athlete, more than even a bond between friends.
Thiess needs Wilson, not just from an emotional standpoint, but also a practical one. As Krebs said, "If it wasn't for Shirley picking up Debbie, Debbie would not be participating."
They're not mother and daughter; it only seems that way.
That's the beauty of the Special Olympics.
Pub Date: 6/07/97