NEWINGTON -One town resident is said by those close to him to embody the spirit of life - a quality that was recently officially recognized.
Warren Hartleb, 45, proudly accepted the Spirit of Life Award from Special Olympics Connecticut after more than 30 years of participation in the organization’s West Hartford and Newington chapters.
“This award is presented to athletes who exemplify the true spirit and meaning of Special Olympics,” said Debbie Horne, with Special Olympics Connecticut.
According to his family and coach, Hartleb does this wholeheartedly.
His career began in track and field, before he went on to try skiing, snowboarding and other activities. Now the assistant coach of Newington’s floor hockey team and a global messenger for the organization, Hartleb has traveled all over the country competing and meeting fellow athletes.
“I’ve never gotten an award like that,” he said this week. “When I found out about it I was excited and slightly nervous.”
Newington Special Olympics volunteer coach Tricia Stapleton nominated Hartleb.
“Warren is recognized as a leader by his teammates and lives every day with a positive attitude regardless of life’s challenges,” Stapleton wrote in her nomination.
The pair has been working together for over three decades and grown close over the years.
“He’s got the spirit - the true meaning of the Special Olympics,” Stapleton said Tuesday. “It’s not all about winning. It’s also about helping out and recruiting, and that’s what Warren really loves.”
He considers this responsibility more of a privilege, since it involves traveling and lots of friendly introductions.
“When we went out to Roanoke, Virginia, I met a four-time gold medalist in the regular Olympics,” he remembered. “I’m pretty lucky because so many other athletes who compete don’t get a chance to go out to Roanoke and the national games in Iowa.”
The trip to Iowa was in 2006, when Hartleb competed with the national softball team. What he cherished most about the experience wasn’t necessarily the competition.
“The campus was really nice and the food was phenomenal,” he pointed out. “You could have whatever kind of food you wanted, day or night. You feel like you’re eating on a cruise ship.”
He is among the higher-functioning athletes, and his main challenge is reading.
“I like to read my sports magazines and other things but sometimes I have to read really slow, so I can understand the meaning of it,” he explained.
Aside from sports, food and reading, Hartleb is also passionate about recycling.
He and Stapleton collect cans and bottles at games they attend, donating the money raised through turning these items in to the Newington Special Olympics.
He most enjoys motivating and inspiring other athletes with physical and intellectual challenges. There are more than 500 in Newington’s chapter alone.
“I try to encourage them to get their skills up,” Hartleb said. “To set their goals high and don’t let their disability be too low.”
Right now the organization is working to build its team even further, recruiting new athletes and volunteers.
“The summer games start in April and we’re looking for a swimming coach,” Stapleton said.
Upcoming games also include unified soccer, track and field and cycling.
Volunteers must commit to giving their time a few hours one day a week. Those interested can contact Stapleton at 860-402-4053.
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.