Training without the stress of winning: life is not a straight river

Ulrike Schleising will be competing in the World Games for the mentally handicapped and mentally ill in mid-July. The 48-year-old trains on the Eider River.

On the way to the Olympic Games: Ulrike Schleising trains with her group on the Eider . Photo:

Long Beach: Endless white beach, bordered on one side by the whitecaps dancing on the waves, on the other the skyscrapers of Los Angeles towering above. Long Beach is where Ulrike Schleising will compete for a medal in the Special Olympics at Marine Stadium in mid-July.

But Schleising is still standing on the banks of the Eider River in Achterwehr, damp grass under her feet, the clay-brown water of the river in front of her, which is only a few meters wide at this point. A mother duck swims by, followed by a row of brown-plumed chicks. Long Beach, the competition: Ulrike Schleising’s face contorts a little when she thinks about it: "I have to feel my way through it," says the 48-year-old. One thing is clear: she’s not taking part to win.

Schleising wears a thick, blue knitted sweater over which she now straps a life jacket – no, she doesn’t look like a competitive athlete, let alone an Olympian. But the Kiel native, a mother of two who works full-time in horticulture, is part of the delegation that will represent Germany at the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles between July 25 and August 2. A sports festival of nations and big numbers: Nearly 7,000 athletes from 177 countries will compete in 25 sports. Ulrike Schleising will paddle, 100 meters alone, maybe also 500 meters in the two-man.

With her teammate Erika Suhk, Schleising takes the boat out of the shed, a garage-sized space filled by a ceiling-high shelf in which several plastic boats are stored. Life jackets and paddles pile up in the corners, smelling of rubber and musty fabric. The room used to serve the Achterwehr volunteer fire department as an equipment shed, but the paddlers have been using it since the early 1990s.

The driving force, coach and organizer of the group is Holger Suhk, Erika’s husband: "Holger got us all into it," says Ulrike Schleising. "He gave us his hobby, he sacrifices his free time for us." Holger Suhk is also flying to Los Angeles, as a supervisor, and he beams when he talks about it, "This is a great opportunity for disabled sports. We are part of something really big."

Being there is everything: At the Olympic Games and also at their counterpart for people with disabilities, the Paralympics, the phrase now sounds almost silly. In many sports, there is too much money at stake, and in the fringe sports, at least, national honor is at stake.

Different rules apply to the Special Olympics. Not necessarily the fittest, fastest, strongest are sent to the competitions. Those who want to participate in the games must be at least 16 years old, prove membership in a state association of the umbrella organization Special Olympics Germany (SOD) and have an intellectual disability or mental disorder. Those who are team players and have participated in national games to qualify have good chances.

In the end, it is not the selection of the best that applies, but rather the rotation principle: Those who have already competed once at international games are eliminated so that others may. That happened this year to Kai Sparenborg, one of Schleising’s teammates. He was one of the faster competitors at the national championships, but is not going to Los Angeles: "Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair," he says.

Ulrike Schleising and Erika Suhk heave the boat to the jetty and let it glide into the brown water. It’s chilly, as it often is this summer, but at least it’s not raining. Schleising almost stayed home that day, not feeling well. Perhaps there is also nervousness before the trip: it is her first flight, plus all the hustle and bustle, the many foreign people, the foreign language. "If I don’t know something, it’s difficult, then panic sets in," she says.

But in the boat, she begins to relax. They take a turn, paddling past Holger Suhk and the other members of the group, and gradually Schleising’s expression brightens. Paddling is a balance for her, she says, a counterbalance after working in the garden of the craftsman’s yard "Fecit", a facility for people with disabilities, where the others also work.

The sport on the water her helps to leave the everyday life behind. "You have a straight line in front of you, you look at the point you want to reach – and then you get right there," she says. In life, it doesn’t always work out that way. She’s from Westphalia, grew up on a farm. Because she was more delicate and sensitive than her siblings, her parents sent her to a Waldorf school. Even as a child and teenager, she often withdrew. At the end of her school years, she had her first stay in a clinic.

Again and again she spent time in psychiatric institutions, got married, "basically just to get out of there." But the marriage didn’t last, and Schleising moved back into an assisted living group. Her two children grew up separately from her. After a long silence, she has no contact with either of them.

Her daughter is now a mother herself: "So I’m already a grandma," says the Olympic athlete. Today, she lives in her own apartment, drives herself to work in the morning at the Handwerkerhof and also back again. "I’ve accomplished more than I thought I would," she says. "You have to be happy and grateful for that."

Paddling has also helped a little, trainer Holger Suhk is convinced. In 1985, he founded the group. It all started with a joint vacation trip to Denmark. This turned into regular training. The fecit group also works together with the Kiel Canoe Club. They paddle on and off together throughout the season. "Living inclusion," says Suhk. Last weekend, at the end of Kiel Week, Fecit paddlers transported a little sister of the Olympic flame from the sailing harbor in Schilksee – the 1972 Olympic village – to the city center.

Kiel was a stop on a nationwide "Inclusion Torch Relay" organized by the initiative "Network Inclusion Germany" to promote more inclusion. If Kiel were to co-host the Olympics with Hamburg, perhaps disabled and non-disabled people could compete together. "That would be something," Suhk says.

His group already competed in the Special Olympics in Munich in 2012 and won medals. But that’s not so difficult: There are many competitions, so there are many prizes to give out – a bit as if no one should really have to go home sad at the end. So Suhk says: "Competitive sport is only the by-product. It’s about having fun and being with each other."

With a few powerful strokes of the paddle, Erika Suhk and Ulrike Schleising bring their boat back to the dock. How fast were they? The two women exchange perplexed glances. They also don’t remember the time they qualified for Los Angeles at the German Championships. "Ulrike didn’t want to be first, I didn’t want to be last – and it worked out," says Erika Suhk. And with a little luck, it will work out again in Long Beach.

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