Involved and Inspired Alumnus Witnesses the Meaning of Victory

by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos by Tom Wilson.

His two decades as a Special Olympics volunteer put him in the presence of flashbulb notables from Jon Bon Jovi to Billy Graham, from Kristi Yamaguchi to founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Lester Loner, training coordinator and coach for Special Olympics Lycoming County, encourages and verbally guides athlete Narcissa Ebner, who is blind, as she snowshoes across Brandon Park in Williamsport. But Lester J. Loner is most star-struck by everyday heroes, the athletes whose daily determination has kept him coming back again and again.

“They try, no matter what, regardless of their skill level,” said Loner, whose 22 years with Special Olympics led to a 2007 Alumni Citizenship/Humanitarian Award at Pennsylvania College of Technology (article). “I remember one athlete who couldn’t jump across a line on the floor. Eight weeks, nine weeks, three months later, you should have seen the satisfaction at what he could accomplish, how hard they’re willing to work, how successful they can be and how good it makes them feel.”

A 1974 business-administration graduate of Williamsport Area Community College (Penn College’s predecessor), Loner received a bachelor’s degree in business administration/accounting from Bloomsburg University. During his “day job” he is office manager for the Williamsport Municipal Water Authority, although his passion flows far beyond the workplace.

Loner helped as a timer and in assorted other duties, but he officially became involved with Special Olympics in 1989. Responding to a newspaper article soliciting volunteers, he attended a public meeting and went home with the title of training coordinator. It was the first of many hats Loner would wear.

"They're trying just as hard and they deserve the same attention."

In 2007, during the World Summer Games opening ceremony, he was surprised to learn he had been chosen from more than 95,000 volunteers as North American Coach of the Year. Next summer, he will travel to the World Games in Greece as the sports manager for cycling.

Loner is no stranger to globetrotting. He fondly recalls accompanying athletes to Japan, where Special Olympians in 2005 competed at the same Nagano facilities that hosted the Winter Olympic Games. His athletes were championed by the 200 residents of a snow-shrouded village. Schoolchildren made signs of encouragement for their visitors, and despite a shortage of reliable electricity, home visits were an enlightening tradition.

“There’s a real sense of community in meeting people, trading pins, exchanging T-shirts, learning each other’s culture,” he said, noting the lasting friendships he formed on a 2007 trip to Shanghai, China. “In the time that it took me to get to the airport, I had 42 e-mails from people that I left only a couple of hours earlier.”

Kevin Boyles, who with teammate Erin Erdman was the first Special Olympian in the state to race in a 10-kilometer cross-country event, trains in Brandon Park in Williamsport.

When he began, only two sports were offered in his jurisdiction: athletics (track and field events) and bowling. Today, there are 175 Lycoming County athletes in 15 team or individual sports.

The original list has been expanded to include bocce, basketball, floor hockey, equestrian, cross-country skiing and more. Cooperative ventures with the American Youth Soccer Organization and Little League Baseball’s Challenger Division also have broadened the menu.

Community support has grown, as well: The YMCA allows the use of its swimming pool and training facilities. Other groups with which Loner is affiliated – the Lions Club and United Commercial Travelers of America, for instance – have been similarly generous with donations.

“Everyone in Lycoming County has been really wonderful throughout the years in supporting Special Olympics,” he said. “Their support gives the athletes the one thing they cherish most: the chance to try.”

But at the heart of the program – and at the very beating heart of Loner’s involvement – are the athletes. And as in any amateur sporting activity, participants’ skill levels are as varied as the opportunities.

“If you’re one of those gung-ho, win-at-all-costs go-getters, you probably don’t want to coach Special Olympics,” Loner cautioned. “We could have a swimmer with a fear of even going in the water, or you have one who swims all four legs of a medley relay himself. You could have a skier who can go 6.2 miles and one who can’t make it 50 meters. For some, it’s a victory just to run when the gun goes off and to stay between the lines of their lane.”

“You have to understand the athletes you’re working with,” he explained. “They might not be as fast or as strong as another, but they’re trying just as hard and they deserve the same attention. As training coordinator, I stress to the volunteer coaches that it is our goal to get the athletes to try to do their best, so we have taken up our own motto of ‘One inch farther or one second faster.’ This helps guarantee that the athletes can be successful without worrying about winning gold medals.”

For volunteers willing to patiently provide their time and insight, the benefits are many.

With pride, Loner remembers two local skiers headed for the 2001 international competition in Alaska who trained six days a week for a year, seldom missing.

“I knew what the competition would be like at Worlds, so I asked them, ‘Do you want to just do what you can do, or do you want to work hard and see what happens?’ They were very competitive athletes and wanted to train, so we set up a full program – weights, running, the elliptical. Their dedication was obvious.”

The athletes were such a presence at the Williamsport YMCA that patrons befriended them, encouraged them and were inspired by them – some ultimately donating money toward their trip.

Loner has competed in triathlons, is a veteran of dozens of marathons and hundreds of other races and organizes the annual Frostbite 5K that has raised $26,000 for Special Olympics in the last six years. Advocacy helps him hone his own workout regimen, and amid the sweat and effort, he has found a new definition of success.

“It’s tempting to feel sorry for yourself or complain whenever something doesn’t seem to be going right, but just think of them,” he said. “They really give it their heart. I think, ‘If they’re willing to try, can my life really be that difficult?’” ■


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