Kellen Kaasa's first venture into sports at age eight almost didn't happen, according to his mother Dawn Kaasa, "We were looking for him to get swimming lessons and no one would let him take them at local pools." She says the pool staff didn't feel they had anyone qualified to teach her son who was born with Down syndrome.
Thankfully an instructor at a local YMCA stepped up to offer Kellen private lessons. This offer brought Kellen more than just swim lessons: as it turned out, Special Olympics swimmers trained at the very same YMCA. After connecting with the team, Kellen was given a chance to learn to swim from a Special Olympics coach and invited to be part of a program that would truly change his life.
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From the Pool to the Greens
After his debut, Kellen tried a few different sports with Special Olympics, including track and bowling. But it was at age 12, when Kellen took up golf with his brother, that he found his favorite sport. When Special Olympics began to offer golf as an option for their athletes, Kellen jumped at the chance.
Already the family sport, with father Tim, brother Devin and sister Taryn being avid players, golf unites the Kaasa clan. Kellen's involvement with Special Olympics golf gave the family even more time to be together.
"As soon as Special Olympics started golf, Tim and I got certified as coaches so that Kellen and Devin could participate as a unified team," Dawn says. Kellen began working on his skills in order to compete with Special Olympics, practicing long and short putts, chipping and driving with irons and woods.
Once he nailed his skills he was able to qualify for three-hole and then nine-hole competitions with Special Olympics. He has been competing ever since.
When asked what he loves about golf, Kellen's response is "my brother." The game has given the brothers something to share. Thankfully, Special Olympics provides Kellen and his brother a unique opportunity to play and practice together. Golf with Special Olympics can be a unified sport, where athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play on the same team. With golf, the course is nine holes and partners alternate holes.
Kellen and his brother have participated in unified golf at the state level in Minnesota ever since Special Olympics began offering it 14 years ago. Coached by their parents, the brothers have gotten gold at each Minnesota Special Olympics Games they've participated in.
For individual competitions, Devin is never too far. He often caddies for Kellen, and was there as his caddy when Kellen earned a bronze medal in individual stroke play at the Special Olympics National Games in 2006.
The brothers' bond helps to push Kellen, his mother explains, "Devin has always had a lot of confidence in Kellen's abilities and he has encouraged him and sometimes even pushed Kellen because he knows he can do better."