Alicia Gogue was a wide-eyed 8-year-old when she rode her first two-wheeler. One minute, her father was trotting beside her, steadying the bicycle. The next, she was pedaling solo through her quiet neighborhood in Odenton..
"I didn't realize I was alone until I turned my head," said Gogue, who was born with Down syndrome. "It was like I had wings on my back. I thought, 'I can do it!'"
Now 31 and an accomplished cyclist, she'll compete in the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, which begin Saturday in Los Angeles. More than 7,000 athletes from 177 countries are entered in 25 sports, including Gogue, one of three area residents who will participate.
"I'm thrilled to go there," said Gogue, who sent her bike, which she calls "Trek," ahead to L.A. "I want to see new faces, meet new friends and take a lot of pictures with my smartphone."
She'll take part in several events, including the five-kilometer (about three-mile) road race in Long Beach.
"I know it will be very hot and I'll get sweaty, but I am really tough," Gogue said. "It doesn't matter if I win or not, because I'm always a winner at heart."
Gogue's parents will be there rooting her on. When they learned their daughter had Down syndrome, her father, Alex Gogue, said, "we decided we would do whatever it took to help her grow and not restrict her from anything. Alicia skis, swims, bowls and roller blades. She has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. She has her own laptop and iPad, and she tweets."
Alicia Gogue attended Arundel High and both Anne Arundel Community College and Community College of Baltimore County, and now works as a teacher's aide at the School of the Incarnation in Gambrills. To prepare for the World Games, she rode 10 miles each weekend with her dad along leafy bike trails in Glen Burnie.
"I try to stay as strong as possible and not let anyone put me down, no matter what," she said.
All her life, she has embraced her father's maxim: "The word 'handicap' is for golfers and bowlers, not for people with disabilities."
Early on, Alex Gogue determined that his daughter would ride a bike. She fell often.
"It was a struggle because of the balancing," he said. "One day, after an hour of helping her, my hands came off of the bike. At first, I didn't realize I'd let go, but she didn't fall. When I caught up, Alicia had this big smile, like it was one moment in life when she had control of herself.
"I had tears in my eyes; it was one of the proudest moments I've ever had. Know how you feel when a baby learns to walk? I felt the same, only more so."
A quick study
Another World Games cyclist, 44-year-old Eddie Murphy of Grasonville (Queen Anne's County), is newer to the sport, having embraced it three years ago. But he learned quickly, said his sister, Alice Webb, who has overseen his care since their mother passed away about five years ago.
"Eddie had always been babied," Webb said of her brother, who at age 5, suffered irreversible brain damage from infection. Webb placed Murphy in a group home for the developmentally disabled around the time their mother died and encouraged him to take part in local Special Olympics events. He has won more than 70 medals in everything from bocce to basketball.
The World Games marks Murphy's first international go at competitive cycling. It's a concept he has been reluctant to adopt.
"We've been working with him, training him to go faster," said Webb, of Chester. "We're trying to get it into Eddie's head that he should want to beat those who are riding with him — but he usually goes at his own pace."
A man of few words, Murphy surprised racegoers last September at a cycling event at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base. Upon crossing the finish line, he flashed a broad smile and shouted, "Hey, hey, hey! It's Fat Albert!"
A month later, while in Indianapolis to train for the World Games, Murphy caused another stir.
"Somehow, in his hotel room, Eddie called room service and ordered himself a cheeseburger and a beer," his sister said. "How he did it, we don't know because he can't pick up a phone and dial a number."
Setting his own bar
When Ben Stevick was born with Down syndrome, a doctor told his parents, "The biggest mistake you can make is to set the bar too low for him."
Doris Stevick took the man at his word.
"OK," she told her husband, Dick. "We'll let Ben set his own bar."
Ben Stevick joined Cub Scouts, attended Mount St. Joseph and took to sports. To date, Stevick, 26, of Laurel, has medaled in six events in the Maryland Special Olympics: skiing, swimming, soccer, power lifting, track and field and equestrian. For the World Games, he'll saddle up for the dressage competition, decked out in a white shirt, black coat, white breeches and tall black riding boots.
"Horses like me and I like them," said Stevick, who has been riding for 15 years. "When I'm on them, I feel bigger, more important."
He'll guide his horse through its paces, doing figure eights and other maneuvers, before a watchful crowd including 10 family members. They'll all wear red-and-yellow T-shirts that show a crab on the front and read "GO BEN !!" on the back.
"When he's on a horse, Ben is confident, proud and enabled," his mother said. "He's so excited about these Games that every week at church, he told the priest he's going to the Special Olympics. We even had a speech therapist work with him on how to say the word 'equestrian.'"
He cleared that hurdle, too.