LINCOLN — Barbara Crosby has dedicated a great deal of her adult life coaching intellectually-challenged youngsters and adults, helping them become the best Special Olympians they possibly can.
The bad news is, after nearly a quarter century at the helm, she has stepped down as Rhode Island’s Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing coach for the Special Olympics Rhode Island’s Winter Games, which will be held on Saturday, Feb. 8 at Yawgoo Valley Ski Resort in Exeter.
The good: She “retired” to spend more time working with those involved with the Lincoln North Stars, a program she founded herself back in 2003. Since then, she’s helped athletes with a variety of disabilities not only excel in Nordic sports but also swimming, basketball, track and field, etc.
“I guess it all started in December of 1988; at the time, we were practicing (cross-country) at Roger Williams Park near the Temple of Music,” recalled Crosby, a registered nurse at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. “Back then, we had 12 to 15 athletes of all ages and disabilities who’d compete in the Winter Games.
“I started coaching back then because my friend’s fiancé was coaching the Nordic team, and he asked me I wanted to, so I said, ‘Sure!’” she added. “I did so for a very selfish reason – I had it in my mind back then that I wanted to adopt a child with special needs, so I figured volunteering would help me in a variety of ways.
“Now I have a team (the North Stars) that does every sport, and we do year-round training for year-round competitions. The reason I started it: I did adopt a child with special needs, and I wanted not only a local team, but also the community to get behind such athletes and support them.”
Two years earlier, in 2001, she and SORI Director of Programs Chris Hopkins opted to create a snowshoeing division, which has flourished.
“My daughter, Dereka, started competing in the Winter Games when she was eight, and she’s 24 now,” the elder Crosby noted. “We started her in cross-country, but that wasn’t really her thing, as she wasn’t too comfortable on skis. Once snowshoeing came into vogue, Chris and I got her to try it and she loved it.
“This is the first year she won’t compete, as she wants to take her talents to the Summer Games; she just loves to swim, and play basketball, too,” she continued. “This will be her second year of swimming. (The meet will be held at the University of Rhode Island’s Tootell Natatorium). “She announced this year she was totally done with the Winter Games; she wanted to concentrate on swimming.”
A year ago, once Crosby’s wishes were known, she and Hopkins brought in Alan Lussier, a Cranstonian, to help them with the Nordic squad; he and Crosby served as co-coaches to make the transition that much easier this time around.
Crosby can’t wait to see how a pair of North Stars, including Nicholas Conklin, 23, of Lincoln and Elizabeth Grasso, 26, of Manville, fare during the cross-country and snowshoeing competitions in less than two weeks.
“Nicky and Liz are two of my original athletes, with Dereka, dating back to snowshoeing’s start back in 2001,” she said. “They all have intellectual disabilities, but they love to compete. I want them and the families to look to Alan as the new head coach, but if he needs me for anything, I know he’ll call me and I’ll be there.
“Both started with me when they were 10 year old, when they were running in the track events and also the softball throw,” she continued. “Nick will compete in the 100- and 200-meter (snowshoeing) races, and so will Liz.”
When asked how they practiced in past years when there was no snow, Crosby chuckled, “Oh, we still practice. We do have that at times in Rhode Island, so if it happens, we’ll (train) on the grass or in mud. Those athletes meet once a week for two hours at Goddard Park (in Warwick/East Greenwich).
“I’m really anxious to see how they do. Oh, my God, Nicky’s so much better! He’s gained more maturity as he’s grown older, and he’s so much fun! He takes such joy in practicing and competing. The thing about him is he’s always smiling. He’s just a great, great young man.
“I can’t remember if he won a medal last year, but I’m sure he did because he’s that good,” she added. “I don’t see him that much with the snowshoes on, but I always do at basketball practices (at Lincoln Middle School’s gym) every Saturday. He’s all excited to compete (on Feb. 8). He’ll look at me and say, ‘I did snowshoe! I did snowshoe!’ He’s so enthusiastic.
“As for Liz, she’s on the basketball team, too, and she always gives it her all. She takes it more seriously than Nicky, and works really hard at improving. She always wants to win, and that’s because she’s such a dedicated athlete. You can see it when she’s training, or at the starting line. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, she wants a victory.”
Crosby’s North Stars include over 50 athletes from all over the state, though – this winter – only two from the Blackstone Valley will take to the snow at the Yawgoo ski resort.
“The Winter Games team is state-based; the competitions are in the downhill and snowboarding, or the Alpine events, and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, or the Nordic,” she explained. “But there are still other sports that go on during the winter. It mimics the high school, collegiate and pro sports’ league seasons.
“Nicky and Liz are both going to play for us when the basketball competition is held (on Saturday, Feb. 22 at Providence College’s Peterson Recreation Center).
“I adore the Special Olympics; I mean, this is where I cut my teeth,” she continued. “I didn’t know a lot about skiing and those things, but parents trained to be a coach many moons ago; they also trained me how to be a parent to a child with special needs.
“The big thing you need is patience. You’ve got to have it. As I watch my families watch their kids or adults, their athletes, compete, the amount of patience they have is remarkable. They have so much understanding. I know they know there’s a lot of dignity involved with each athlete.”
After all these years, Crosby is still amazed by the things these athletes endure.
“I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m astonished by their strength, athletic ability, perseverance, desie and ability to find joy with every practice, every race, every game,” she stated. “These are athletes who can do things we can’t. Really, who among us would consider putting on a pair of snowshoes and running as fast as you can for 100 or 200 meters. I don’t think I could and remain upright! I wouldn’t want to do it, but they sure do. God bless them.
“Both Nicky and Liz stand great chances at winning medals, and I have to say al of are athletes very much the understand the difference between medaling and receiving a ribbon. Some are so competitive, and Dereka’s one of them. That’s why part of what we do is teach them about good sportsmanship; we do that by modeling it for them.
“We’re always telling them, ‘Did you do the best you could? If you did, then you’ve won, no matter what. It doesn’t matter what place you got.’ Then we tell them how proud we are of them. After all, they’re ours.”