Anton Vevrka with mom and dad

Special Olympics athlete goes the distance

by JIM TRACY

Richey man understands the importance of family, perseverance and big dreams

Life’s more fun if you have a passion for something. Just ask Anton Veverka of Richey, Mont.

A Special Olympics athlete, Veverka, 26, has a passion for running long distances. He’s got a trophy case full of medals (mostly gold) and a stack of newspaper clippings to prove it.

Among the thousand or so athletes who competed in the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games in Great Falls in May, Veverka was chosen — as Athlete of the Year — to light the cauldron during opening ceremonies after helping carry the Olympic torch on its last leg into the city.

He finished first in the games in his specialties, winning the 3000-meter run in 12:31.78 and the 5000 meters in 20:42.53 at C.M. Russell High School track.

Veverka has also excelled in competition outside of Montana.

Anton Veverka with gold medal in cross-country skiing at Special Olympics Montana Winter Games in 2007

Anton Veverka with gold medal in cross-country skiing at Special Olympics Montana Winter Games in 2007

He won gold in the 1,500 meters and silver in the 800 at the World Games in Dublin, Ireland, in 2003, competing along with 7,000 other athletes from 160 delegations. That was after he won those two races handily at the Montana summer games that year. Last year he was named an alternate to the U.S. team for the games in Shanghai.

In his first year competing in cross-country skiing at the State Winter Games in Whitefish in February, he took home three gold medals.

“He trains all year long,” said his father, Larry Veverka.

Anton runs just about everywhere. His daily jaunts used to include delivering mail to his late grandmother, Mary Veverka, who died a month ago at age 94.

“He runs over to his brother and sister-in-law’s home just for fun,” Larry Veverka said. “And he always takes time to play with his niece and nephew, Mataya and Austin.”

Veverka has earned his success the hard way, overcoming a physical disability and naysayers who told him what he couldn’t do and shouldn’t do.

But like all successful people, he didn’t let barriers get in his way or listen to people who doubted him. And also like other successful people, he depended on support from others. His parents, Larry and Roxie, believed in him and found people in the tiny community of Richey to believe in him, too.

Anton was born in the Glendive Hospital in 1982 and later developed a neurological disorder known as verbal apraxia, an impairment of the motor programming of speech.

APRAXIA, according to the scientific literature, is characterized by loss of the ability to carry out skilled movements and gestures, despite having the desire and the physical ability to perform them.

“He was not born with his disability,” his mother said. “He developed apraxia when he was about a year old. It was caused by a polio vaccination.”

Because of apraxia, Anton has always needed extra help.

“Anton has trouble with sequencing,” his father said. “But we work with him.”

The Veverkas took him when he was a baby to specialists at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Neb. The hospital is internationally recognized for clinical service and research into the treatment of childhood deafness and communication disorders.

Doctors there did what they could, but they told the Veverkas that Anton would always have a disability.

“It was tough,” Larry said.

His parents tried to enroll him in the first grade in Richey when he turned 6, but they met resistance.

“We had a hard time getting him into school,” Larry recalled.

As they had in the past, they turned for help to George Biebl, a family support specialist with Hi-Line Homes Program in Sidney.

“He started working with us back when Anton was a baby,” Larry said. “He was our advocate. He’s the one who made it so Anton could get into school.”

Anton Veverka

lone in his cab, Anton maneuvers a 1982 John Deere Model tractor fitted with a 32-foot cultivator on the family farm near Richey, He entertains himself by listening to music on an MP3 player. Amanda Breitbach photo

THE VEVERKAS live on a sheep farm eight miles south of Richey in the shadow of the Big Sheep Mountains. Anton’s grandfather, Louis, bought the place after working for six years as a hand on the farm for 50 cents a day.

Anton’s brother, 29-yearold Tristan, also lives on the farm with his wife, Jennifer. Another brother, Layton, 21, is studying engineering at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, where his mother grew up.

The Veverkas raise Rambouillet sheep (the “backbone” of the American sheep industry) and Targhee cross. They also run red Angus cattle and grow alfalfa grass, hay, barley, pea hay, sanfoin (a grass), spring wheat, winter wheat and organic wheat — whatever it takes to keep the place going.

Raising sheep, though, is everyone’s No. 1 job, especially during March when ewes give birth to their lambs in a large community pen. If the weather is fair (it usually isn’t in March in Eastern Montana), the ewes will have their lambs outside.

Usually ewes lamb on their own, without help or interference. Most of the ewes give birth to twins or triplets. The lambs quickly get up and have their first meal.

After a litter is born, they are placed in a 5-footby- 5-foot pen called a “jug” with their mother, which encourages lambs and ewe to bond and allows the shepherd to easily observe them. Within the first 24 hours, the lambs are weighed and their ears are tagged.
Anton helps herd the sheep in and out of the jugs and cleans the pens. But his work doesn’t end there. “He does whatever he can on the farm,” his father said. In summer, he spends hours in a tractor tilling fields to prepare them for next year’s planting.

Soil tillage helps mix manure and other fertilizers into the root zone where growing plant roots may reach it. Tillage helps seeds germinate, creating a smooth, uniform soil surface for planting. And it helps keep weeds under control between crop plants.
It’s a vital job, and Anton pursues it with the same devotion he gives to running, working long hours maneuvering a 1982 John Deere Model 8640 Tractor fitted with a 32-foot cultivator.

“He knows how to wing it up and move it down the road,” his father said. “He lives to do it. He can hardly wait to ’til he can get out there to run the tractor.”

The joy of running shows on Anton’s face in the 3000-meter run at the State Summer Games in Great Falls in May. He won the race, competing against runners from C.M. Russell High School and Miss Montana Kristen Mantooth. Jim Tracy photo

The joy of running shows on Anton’s face in the 3000-meter run at the State Summer Games in Great Falls in May. He won the race, competing against runners from C.M. Russell High School and Miss Montana Kristen Mantooth. Jim Tracy photo

He entertains himself in the solitude of the tractor cab by listening to music on an MP3 player his parents bought him for his birthday. His tastes run mostly to rock and roll, but Grammy-winning singer Rihanna is his one of his favorites.

He also drives two days a week to a part-time job at the Black Bridge Fitness Center in Glendive, where he works as a grounds-keeper and janitor. His ride is his pride and joy — a red, 2005 Chevy Colorado pickup truck, which he often loads with supplies for the 50- mile return trip to the farm.

But running is his favorite pursuit.

“I try to run some every day,” he said Accompanying him on his daily lopes along the
country roads around the farm are a pair of border collies, Crimson and Clover.

BUT FOR ALL he’s accomplished in the sport and as much as he’s come to love it, he may never have developed a desire to run long distances without the encouragement of the late Phil Robinson, longtime Richey High School track coach.

“Because of his disability no one expected Anton to participate in sports, but when he wanted to be in track he turned to Phil,” Larry Veverka said.

Robinson recognized his potential and desire.

“He said, ‘You bet he can join the track team,’” Larry recalled.

After evaluating Anton, Robinson found the ideal
event for him.

“Long-distance running — that’s where he figured Anton was best suited,” Veverka said.

Seven years later, Robinson’s faith and encouragement paid off when Anton placed in the district track meet and earned his high school letter.

Anton also wanted to play hoops but met resistance there as well.

“He loved sports, and basketball was a sport he knew wanted to play,” Larry said. “He was not accepted by the different Richey coaches. He sat on the sidelines during practice and was not allowed to play in the games. But he didn’t let that disappointment hold him down, as he discovered a Special Olympics basketball team in Sidney.”

He now plays with the Sidney team under Coach Tami Edwards.

“They just keep winning,” Larry said.

At 26, Anton is still aiming for new heights in long distance running and now cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.

Sevier, a runner and skier herself, travels with Veverka to competitions, including last February to the Special Olympics Winter Games in Whitefish, where she raced alongside him as his unified partner, or “ski buddy,” in the 1-kilometer relay, a competition they won. Anton also earned gold in the 3-kilometer race and 500-meter relay.A habilitation aide with Highland Home Services in Glendive, Sevier, along with Gloria Glaser, a case manager with AWARE Inc., are teaching Anton basic living skills like cooking and managing a budget with the goal of helping him live on his own in an apartment or home some day.

Sevier, who has known Anton since 2002, is also working with him to build his endurance for a half-marathon (13 miles) with the goal of eventually running eventually a full marathon.

“I’m amazed at Anton’s fortitude and perseverance,” she said. “I admire his dedication. He doesn’t overdo it. He knows his limit and he pushes himself to that
limit. He has a strength of purpose that keeps him moving upward.”

He’s also confident — so confident in fact that he told his father three years ago, “Some day I want to carry the torch and light the cauldron at the Special Olympics.”

He did that in May.

Next year he wants to participate in the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho. And by 2011, he hopes to make the U.S. team for the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

Those who know him expect to see him standing on the medals platform at both places.

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