BENNINGTON -- Sixteen-year-old Patrick Liehr has always liked sports -- playing or watching.
But after he endured seizures and brain surgery all before the age of four, Kitty Liehr, Patrick’s mother, was unsure if her son would ever be able to take part in sports.
Now, Patrick, a rising sophomore at Mount Anthony Union High School, will be part of a 15-person contigent to travel to Oklahoma City, Okla., for the International Special Olympics softball tournament from Sept. 20-24.
A year ago, the Liehrs moved from Houston, Texas, to Bennington. Before the move, Kitty talked to Barbara Wood, the receptionist at their soon-to-be doctor’s office. Wood, a partner with the Special Olympics and a member of the softball team, asked Kitty if her son would be interested in joining.
"He’s never played baseball before this; more basketball," said Kitty, watching the team practice on Tuesday at the Bennington Rec Center field. "It makes him feel confident. He’s very athletic, very good with sports, but there’s not a lot of opportunities at the high school for him."
After winning the silver medal in their division at the tournament in Chicago last year, the Bennington Special Olympics team was invited to this year’s event in January, according to program coordinator Chris Lantz.
"We represented Vermont very well. They expanded the tournament twice so far and we’ve been lucky to be a part of it," Lantz said. "It’s a way to give them peer competition and socialization, some of the biggest parts of what Special Olympics provides."
Thirty-two teams from 23 states and Canada will all be battling for the gold medal. Each team is made up of Olympians -- those with intellectual disabilities -- and partners, able-bodied participants. On the field, half the team must be Olympians and the other half must be partners.
"How it plays out, there’s a lot more teams this year. We go in wanting to win, that’s always how we go," Lantz said. "But the Special Olympics motto is, ‘Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ That’s the motto, so we’re going for the gold."
Olympian and right fielder Lenny Bell was part of the team that won the silver in Chicago.
"I’m honored to go to Oklahoma, to represent Bennington and play softball," Bell said. "Playing with the guys is awesome. Hopefully we will try our best. I’d like to win the gold to bring home to Bennington -- that would be awesome."
The team played in a tournament earlier this year in Burlington, finishing first in Division II at the state Summer Games.
"It gives [Patrick] an opportunity to travel," Kitty Liehr said. "He went to Burlington without me and spent the night... it’s a huge confidence booster."
That confidence is taken from the field of play to everyday life.
"[Patrick] has become close to Chris, they’ve gone to the movies together and Barb has become a close friend," said Kitty, whose husband died of cancer in 2002. "It’s nice for him to have a male role model."
The team has to pay for the trip to Oklahoma City for the tournament and are looking for donations. They have a goal of $10,000 for the travel portion of the trip. To donate, visit firstgiving.com and search Bennington Special Olympics softball.
Team members: Olympians -- Lenny Bell, Teddy Bogardus, Matt Briggs, Patrick Liehr, Eric McMorrow, James O’Dell, Katherine Pratt, Roxanne Willette, Zach Wilson
Partners -- Dick Frantz, Jamie Murphy, Lacy Parmenter, Mike White, Justin Wilson, Barbara Wood
Coaches -- Chris Lantz, Jim White.