Meet the Blazing Stars Special Olympics Team

by | Jul 2024

From left to right: Adam Steiner, April Stoebe, Katie Diegnau and Bennet Gunvalson

From left to right: Adam Steiner, April Stoebe, Katie Diegnau and Bennet Gunvalson. Photo: Chris Emeott

Athletes of Woodbury’s Blazing Stars share highlights of being part of the team.

Picture a summer afternoon at Lamar Fields in Cottage Grove. The park is full of athletes, coaches and spectators, all coming together to watch a softball or bocce game. The sun is shining, and the sense of belonging and friendship is in the air.

That is how Rich Stoebe describes watching Woodbury’s Blazing Stars Special Olympics team. The volunteer coach and parent of an athlete says the popularity of the organization has grown since its inception 25 years ago, now including more than 130 athletes spread across its nine sports and one activity offered.

“It’s really quite impressive,” Rich says of the Blazing Stars rosters. “This is really a dedicated group of athletes, coaches and parents … We can fill Lamar Fields.”

The volunteer-led organization celebrates its silver anniversary this year, recognizing the importance of individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities to be included in athletics and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Associated with Special Olympics Minnesota, the Blazing Stars fosters lifelong friendships on and off the court, field, rink or course.

“We try to create opportunities that are really inclusive,” Rich says. “This organization offers continuous learning, development of skills and staying the course with a healthy lifestyle … It’s really a wonderful group.”

And while volunteer coaches play a key role in the Blazing Stars, Rich says it’s the athletes who belong in the spotlight. Inspired by their determination and good sportsmanship nature, Stoebe says the athletes are the real stars—literally and figuratively.

Meet the Stars

Adam Steiner has been with the Blazing Stars for 23 years, participating in four sports. “My favorite part about being an athlete is playing the sport and meeting friends,” Steiner says.

Steiner says throughout his years with the program, he has learned how to work together as a team and accept the outcome of every game or match. “When we win, I feel pretty good, and when we lose, I still feel OK,” he says. “We have a good time and meet new friends.”

When Katie Diegnau first joined the Blazing Stars 18 years ago, she admits she was scared and shy. Eventually, she gained confidence and now participates in seven Blazing Stars sports.

“I feel like I can do a lot of things without help,” Diegnau says. “I tell my dad, ‘Don’t help me. I can do it myself.’ … Now, I want to try and learn new things. I still make mistakes, but that’s how you learn.”

April Stoebe—Rich’s daughter—enjoys the friendships made and being part of the team. For 16 years, April has participated in sports that have challenged her to emerge from her comfort zone.

Hoping to encourage others to surprise themselves with their abilities, April says joining the Blazing Stars offers a safe place where friendships are created. “Come join our team, and we will welcome you with open arms and we will show you the steps to the sport,” she says.

Bennet Gunvalson is one of the Blazing Stars’ newest athletes. In his first season, he participated in poly hockey and flag football and is ready to try swimming next year.

“I like the practices, scrimmages and tournaments/games,” Gunvalson says. “I like to compete and make new friends.”

Gunvalson says he enjoys competition and being a team player and urges others to join. “It’s fun and you get to know a lot of people,” he says. “We cheer each other on.”

When asked if there was anything else Gunvalson wanted others to know about the Blazing Stars or himself, he offers a glimpse into his celebratory ritual. “When I score a touchdown or a goal, I usually hit the Griddy,” he says.

Blazing Stars Special Olympics


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