Annual event features Marathon paddlers with Special Olympians
Carlie Wilson | Staff Writer
With all of the chaos and pre-race excitement happening around Grayling during the last week of July, it can be easy to get lost in it all. Between the H.U.P. Race, Kids Day, Business Relays, Time Trials, and an all week festival, there is so much to do.
One event, however, is separate from the rest. Each year, on the Friday before the Marathon, the Grayling Knights of Columbus and the AuSable Marathon Committee team up to conduct a special event: the AuSable River Special Olympics Canoe Race.
For the last two decades, AuSable River Canoe Marathon paddlers – current racers and former Marathon competitors – are paired with local Special Olympians to paddle a short looped course in an aluminum canoe.
This event isn’t just exciting for the Olympians; it’s an event that paddlers and spectators patiently wait for all year.
Paddler Weston Willoughby, who’s participated in the Special Olympics the last few years, said the event “means a lot to me. It’s great to be able to give everyone an opportunity to have some fun; it’s nice to be able to give back.”
“I try to do this event every year. I don’t have anyone in my family who is special needs, I just like to come out and help and spread a little joy to these really cool people,” said Willoughby.
Another veteran paddler, Dwight Walker, shared his favorite part of the event.
“I’ve done the race for 22 consecutive years, and when Melinda gets here, this will be our 21st year racing together,” said Walker.
“I enjoy the camaraderie that we have, and every time that Melinda comes she’s excited to be here and to see me. I also have a son that has special needs, so for that reason this event means a lot to me and to my family,” said Walker.
“We call Melinda ‘the soaker’ because she tries extra hard to get me soaking wet, and I look forward to this day all year long, and she talks about it five months in advance. She’s always excited to participate in this event,” Walker said.
True to Walker’s word, Melinda shared last year that “splashing Dwight” is her favorite part of the event.
“I’m really good at it!” she said.
This year, Melinda had help; several teams had to paddle in the rain during a brief storm.