Special Olympian strikes gold in Athens

As an employee in the video game department at Best Buy, Columbia's Randi Penenburgh has played plenty of sports games on the Nintendo Wii and similar systems. But unlike most video game players, Penenburgh has done much more than just compete in a virtual arena. In fact, she has competed at an international level.

Penenburgh recently took part in the Special Olympics World Summer Games June 25-July 4 in Athens, Greece, and won a gold medal July 1 in the bench press. While her winning lift of 45 pounds may not seem like a lot, consider that at around 75 pounds, Penenburgh was the lightest athlete in the competition, and lifted more than half of her body weight.


"I just got into it, I guess, and I did pretty good," Randi Penenburgh said. "I just did the best I could."

In all, Special Olympics Maryland claimed eight gold medals and 10 overall among its 17 representatives at the World Games.

The Summer Games featured more than 7,500 athletes from 185 countries and 22 different events and 25,000 volunteers. The opening ceremony was five hours long and featured performances by Vanessa Williams and Stevie Wonder.

Competitors in Special Olympics weightlifting are allowed three attempts. The first is typically a 'safety' lift, where lifters attempt a weight they can comfortably press, the second is a more difficult weight, and on the third attempt the lifter's challenge themselves to a difficult weight.

Because of her small stature, Penenburgh's maximum bench press weight was the competition minimum of 20 kilograms, or about 45 pounds.

"Starting with your maximum weight is very difficult," said Joel Penenburgh, Randi's father and coach. "And she failed the first two times."

Facing the prospect of coming up empty-handed after traveling all the way to Greece, Randi Penenburgh gave it her all on her final attempt, and benefited from some timely advice from a supporter in the crowd.

"Someone in the crowd shouted, 'Throw your chest out!', and she did," Joel Penenburgh said. "The whole place went nuts.

"That's what's cool about Special Olympics. There are no politics, everyone cheers for everyone."

The coaching team from Howard County also includes head coach Clark Gaughan and team coordinator Bill Long. Penenburgh's Team USA coaches were Nicole Knight and Todd Youngblood.

Leading up to the Summer Games, Randi Penenburgh benefited from the direction of Caryn Daniel, a local weightlifter who competes on the national level, and her husband Mark.

The Daniels took time out of their own preparation for a national meet, in Atlanta, to work with Randi several times a week on technique. When Randi went off to train with Team USA, the Daniels passed along vital information that helped the national coaches maximize their time with her.

"She's got a lot of personality and she's a real fighter," Gaughan said. "She works hard. She's very light proportionally. What she's lifting, comparatively, body weight to strength, would be a high level of fitness for the average person … she's getting everything out of (herself)."

Randi Penenburgh has amassed an impressive stack of medals during her two decades of competition, but none as bright as the gold medal she won in Athens.


Not only did she receive a standing ovation during the award ceremony, she also got a personal congratulations from Tim Shriver, head of Special Olympics and the son of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics. Tim Shriver also mentioned Penenburgh by name during the closing ceremonies.

"Imagine if Eunice Kennedy Shriver had never created Special Olympics, how many wonderful, positive moments would have never been there for people like Randi," Gaughan said.

Athletes qualify for the Summer Games by first winning at least one gold medal at the state level in any division during a qualifying year, and then being selected through a random lottery system.

Randi Penenburgh said that she is now looking forward to competing in her other sports — bocce, cycling and cross country skiing — during the coming months. And although she will likely be one of the smallest athletes in the competition, a wise man would bet that more medals are on the way.

"She loves the activity. She's a little jock. She competes, which is different from just practicing," Joel Penenburgh said. "Don't ever think that these kids can't compete."