Nick Minnema – special and driven, for all the right reasons

Competes in Special Olympics World Games overseas, makes great sandwiches back home

Nick Minnema with one of the sandwiches he makes at the Forest Hills Northern cafeteria

Nick Minnema may never get his face on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but he represented West Michigan in a once-in-a-lifetime kind of way when he competed on an international stage alongside other athletes from all over the globe.

Nick proudly shows the three medals he won at the Special Olympics World Games

The youngest of five children born to Roger and Stephanie Minnema of Grand Rapids, Nick competed this month at the Special Olympics World Games half a world away – in the United Arab Emirates’ capital city of Abu Dhabi, as well as the UAE’s largest city, Dubai. He came back with three medals, including a gold in the shot put.

And as much as any athlete I’ve ever interviewed, Nick floored me with his four-word response to my question as to whether he was up for the challenge:

“I was born ready.”

His sublime answer is a slap in the face to all of us who have ever dismissed people with congenital disabilities as somehow not being born ready. And let’s face it: Nick’s profound take on the origin of things should make us explore whether who – if anyone – is ever truly ready for this odyssey called life.

Special Olympian Nick Minnema got a proper send-off the day before he left for overseas

Hard Worker, On Field and Off

Because of Down syndrome, Nick developed at an arguably slower pace than most of his classmates, but he gained ground enough to make his way through a special program at Forest Hills Northern High School. At 21, he continues to attend on the same campus at the Transition Center, alongside others with varying disabilities.

“Hard worker, fun, a great personality,” says his coach, Chris Thomas, who teaches students with autism in the Forest Hills district. “My first year as his coach, Nick scored the winning basket to give us the state championship in basketball.

“We were down by one with 10 seconds to go, and I called time out and had a plan to throw to a different player, but he was too well-guarded. Nick was open, maybe 10 or 12 feet from the basket. We passed to him and he swished it in for the win.”

Chris says that Nick’s form in the shot put – an event in which he medaled overseas, along with the 100- and 200-meter dash – is as good as any shot putter competing for a traditional team. “He’s got great form, and they never call him for a foul. That’s unusual.”

Nick also competed for FHN on the varsity swim team, a strenuous sport even for a mainstream student, given the intensity of workouts.

Nick takes the temperature of chicken tenders to make sure they’re ready to be served

And Nick is just as competitive out of the water and off the track.

“This is a very driven young man,” says his teacher, Katie Sobecki, an educator nine years. “His future plans are to work at Michigan State University in a cafeteria, and to be a part of MSU’s campus and live in an apartment some day.”

Says Nick, “I’m a huge Michigan State fan.”

Toward becoming a Spartan employee, Katie says, “he keeps on moving forward.”

To demonstrate his seriousness, Nick has worked long and hard enough to secure real employment, preparing custom-order submarine sandwiches during both lunch periods at the high school.

“They’re not all the same,” Nick says. “They tell me what kind of bread, what kind of meat, what kind of cheese, what kind of vegetables, and what dressing.”

His classes at the Transition Center are designed to help him conquer daily affairs of living – everything from grocery shopping to planning meals to budgeting money to learning the finer points of social graces. In other words, stuff that some of the rest of us also struggle to master — without Down syndrome.

Competing on World Stage

Between March 14 and 21, Nick competed in two of 24 sports being offered, along with some 7,500 other athletes representing more than 190 countries. He departed earlier this month with coaches and teammates, ahead of his parents, who joined him several days later. Upwards of 500,000 were expected to attend as volunteers and paying spectators.

“It’s been really exciting,” – and nerve-wracking  — said his mom, Stephanie, after he left, “since this is his first time away by himself without any family members. So it’s a really maturing kind of adventure for him as well.”

The day before his departure, teachers and students and others threw him a bon voyage party inside his classroom. “He’s my buddy,” said classmate Nathan Dlouhy. “I’m happy,” added another student, Ally Knoor. “But I’m going to miss him.”

Nick Minnema delights in a cake made specially for him at a bon voyage party

“Pretty cool,” related another classmate, Tony Bonofiglio. “Good luck to him.”

Nick’s parents are, of course, proud of their son’s accomplishments, sports included. He’s been competing for many years in local and regional Special Olympics competitions.

“They really believe in themselves,” Roger said of Special Olympics athletes in general. He revisited the way in which Nick answered a local TV station reporter who wanted to know how good Nick was in the events in which he was to compete. “Too good,” Nick said.

The people in Nick’s circle weren’t overly concerned how Nick might place this month, only that he enjoyed himself and created some lasting memories.

“It is so exciting to have him be a part of it,” said Liz Ensing, transition coordinator at Nick’s school. “What a feat for this young man, who has grown so much.

“It’s just an honor to be a part of his journey, and to see the recognition for how hard he’s worked.”

Photos contributed by Morgan Jarema, Dianne Carroll Burdick, and Nick Minnema’s family

Tom Rademacher
Tom Rademacher was long-time reporter and columnist for The Grand Rapids Press, where he specialized in wringing the extraordinary from the seeming ordinary. Read Tom's full bio

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