Competitor strides into world class
Jennifer Deras was fastest U.S. runner in last year's global Special Olympics
As Special Olympians go, not many can top the achievements of Jennifer Deras.
The 20-year-old Portlander races against the men in many Special Olympics track and field events, because she beats other women by extreme lengths. At Wilson High she ran meets for the junior varsity, and sometimes the varsity.
She also ran in the Hood to Coast relay this year.
Last summer, Deras competed in the Special Olympics World Games, running as part of the United States' 4x100-meter relay team that finished third in its class. She made the finals of her 100- and 200-meter classes, and her times Ñ 14.83 seconds in the 100, 30.12 in the 200 Ñ made her the fastest U.S. runner.
About 100 medals hang in Deras' closet, emblematic of her sports success. She often wears a big, enthusiastic smile as she shoots a basketball, kicks a soccer ball, hits the wire in winning a 100 or rips down Mount Hood on skis.
The activities are 'the center of her social life for sure,' says her father, Warren Deras, a Portland attorney.
'I like skiing the best,' she says. 'The speed É I love to feel the wind in my face.'
Adds her father: 'I'm so glad Special Olympics doesn't have stock car racing.'
Given that Special Olympics is primarily about participation, it is not important to trumpet her finishes. More importantly, Deras can handle her learning disability and live normally, perform in athletics and travel abroad to compete for the U.S. team in international events Ñ major accomplishments in themselves.
'Jennifer, intellectually, is at about a second-grade level,' her father says. 'She does not have Down syndrome, and she has very good verbal skills when she chooses to learn them.
'Incredibly naive,' he describes her. 'And her behavior is a function of judgment, maturity and vulnerability.' Simply, she will always remain about age 8 in one way, and will always probably need assisted living.
But she will be as physically talented as any Special Olympics athlete. Another indication of her ability: At Wilson, she was the only girl in her class to pass the U.S. Marine Corps physical fitness test, being able to hold herself above a chin-up bar for a minute and bench-press her weight (120 pounds).
Deras and about 800 other athletes will compete in the Special Olympics Oregon Fall Games Ñ featuring soccer, aquatics and bowling Ñ at various Portland area locations on Saturday. Deras will play soccer.
Special Olympics offers state championships in the fall, winter and summer, and it will stage a fourth event in the spring next year. Pick a sport, any sport, and Deras usually excels.
Last summer, Deras, Jason Simmons of Beaverton and Debbie McDougald from Portland were among the athletes who traveled to Dublin, Ireland, for the World Games. Simmons played soccer, and McDougald bowled.
Besides the competitions, Deras remembers watching U2 perform and glimpsing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Muhammad Ali lead the athletes in the opening ceremonies. Nelson Mandela also made an appearance. 'A lot of people,' she says. 'Every day I had to race, I was nervous. I raced my fastest.
'I toured the Dublin Castle. There was this big chandelier all lit up in it. Really cool.'
Jason Simmons and his twin brother, Justin, serve as managers for the Beaverton High football team, bringing athletes water and arranging tackling dummies, among other duties. Deras went one step further in high school, competing in track and field, winning some JV races and earning a varsity letter.
She graduated from Wilson in 2002 and is taking special education classes for job skills at Portland State. She also has been involved with child care to learn responsibility.
But her life revolves around athletics. She looks forward to future World Games in Japan and China.
'I really like to travel with my parents,' she says.