Camas bocce ball player Kael Romero, 13, and his mother, Sheri, have only played the competitive lawn game for just under a year, but they’ve already won a gold medal at the Special Olympics Washington games and finished in fourth place at the Special Olympics USA games held in Seattle in July.
“When we were invited to participate in the USA games, which are only held every four years and include teams from all 50 states, we couldn’t believe it,” Sheri said. “What an amazing experience.”
More than 3,000 athletes competed at the Seattle games, and the Romeros were able to experience the thrill of playing on professional bocce courts at the University of Washington.
Kael started playing sports at 3 years old, but had his first seizure at the age of 7 and slipped into a coma. When he woke up, his family discovered Kael had a rare disorder called FIRES, or febrile infection-related epilepsy syndrome, which causes intense, daily seizures and memory loss.
Kael’s condition normally requires physical therapy, but the teen is so active in his Special Olympics sports, the unified games and related practices have taken the place of physical therapy.
“Because of his epilepsy, he can’t remember things, so bocce is great because he can just go out there and play,” Sheri explained.
Gearing up for another crack at the gold medal
The Special Olympics games recently added bocce ball as a sport and coaches thought it would be perfect for Kael, who has been involved with Special Olympics for the past five years, often playing basketball and soccer and cycling.
Concerned about Kael’s seizures causing a cycling accident, coaches hoped bocce could be a good cycling replacement for the young athlete.
Kael and his mother now play on a unified team, which means one player has a disability and the other does not.
Within a month of tossing their first bocce ball, the duo won the gold medal during Special Olympics Washington, which is held every August.
Winning the gold at a state level qualified them for the national Special Olympics USA games, where they scored a fourth-place win.
“I really like winning,” Kael said, grinning.
“All the teams we played against in the USA games were from the East Coast and had been playing the sport at a competitive level for at least four years,” Sheri added.
An ancient game, with Roman Empire roots, bocce ball pits two teams against each other on a 60-foot-long court made of oyster shells and includes the movement of nine different balls. Players start the game by tossing a small white ball, called a pallino. After this, they toss much larger, heavier balls down the court, trying to get as close as possible to the pallino.
Popular in Italy, the game has recently been gaining fans in the United States.
However, while many local residents enjoy bocce courts at home, there are no public bocce courts in Clark County. The closest public court is in Portland’s Pearl District. Some local wineries have installed bocce courts, including English Estate in Vancouver and Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, Washington, where wine tasters can enjoy four professional courts to enjoy, free of charge.
“Bocce ball and wine make a perfect pairing,” Cassie Courtney, director of marketing at Maryhill Winery, said.
The area’s lack of public courts inspired Kael and Sheri to create their own makeshift court at home. The family measured the proper dimensions and marked them in their yard.
“I like practicing at home in our ‘ginormous’ yard,” Kael said.
A typical court is boxed in and the balls can bounce off the walls, much like shuffleboard. Not having the walls is a bit of a training impediment, but the Romeros don’t mind and the court obviously hasn’t impacted their ability to dominate the competition.
Sheri said her son, who is a student at Skyridge Middle School, thrives in competition.
“What’s so great about Special Olympics and playing bocce is that it’s a very competitive environment, which Kael just loves, but if you can’t win then everyone is encouraged to just enjoy the experience,” Sheri Romero said.
Kael plans to continue he and his mom’s winning streak. The pair are already training for the upcoming Special Olympics Washington event, which will be held in Everett Aug. 17-19. The statewide games offer a chance to repeat their gold medal performance and earn a second shot on the national stage.