By Michael J. ARVIZU
Just as if she were about to compete in a track and field event, La Crescenta resident and Special Olympics athlete Antonia “Toni” Gonzalez was pumped up and ready to go, as she prepared to ride on the Kaiser Permanente Rose Parade float moments before the start of the 126th annual parade on Jan. 1.
Temps were in the 30s on parade day, but the cold barely affected the 41-year-old athlete as she spoke about her experiences on and off the field.
Gonzalez, who suffers from cerebral palsy, was chosen to ride aboard the Kaiser float, themed “Together We Thrive.” The float was designed as a tribute to the over 7,000 national and international athletes who will be competing 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Gonzalez was chosen after her mother wrote letters to the float organizers about why she should be chosen to ride on the float.
She found out she would be riding on the float on Thanksgiving morning.
“I feel excited, nervous. I’ve never done this before,” she said as she prepared to board. “I’ve never been much of a parade person, per se. [But] since I’m on it, I’ll get a different perspective.”
The eldest of three children, Gonzalez’s specialty is sprinting, a sport she has participated in for about 20 years. She has won gold, silver and bronze medals in a variety of events.
Gonzalez is also a soccer player and, during the summer, participated in a soccer invitational where she was able to meet people from different countries.
She considers the late Olympian and multiple record holder Steve Prefontaine as one of her biggest idols because of his zest for life, she said.
“I have in mind what he did,” Gonzalez said. “I just push myself to the limit.”
As an athlete, Gonzalez said, she has not had to face many personal challenges, but she dislikes it when she gets cut off while running, “and then you lose the race because they cheated.”
Her family is the number one thing that keeps her going, Gonzalez said, adding they inspire her to push herself.
But many of the Special Olympics athletes who participate in events don’t have families in the stands to cheer them on, Gonzalez said, because many reside in group homes.
“Not a lot of people come to watch us,” she said. “When we have a big race, there are maybe 20 to 30 people in the stands. That’s nothing. We need more people to come cheer us on.”
Gonzalez also attributes the low attendance to fears that whatever condition she and her fellow athletes have is contagious.
“It’s not a disease,” she said. “We’re just like everybody else – maybe a little slower, but we’re not all different. We’re all the same.”
Being treated differently is one obstacle Gonzalez has had to face. She has heard people use the word “retard” around her and even witnessed soda being thrown on fellow athletes.
“Some people won’t give up their seat on the city bus because they’re afraid they’re going to catch what you have,” she said. “I see a lot of the adversity that people like us face – including the senior citizens. It’s just not right.”
Most of the time, Gonzalez has no choice but to internalize her feelings of what she sees. The last thing she wants to do is blow up at someone.
In the meantime, she said, all she does is think happy thoughts when faced with such adversity.
Being in the Special Olympics, Gonzalez said, has given her a different perspective on life and allowed her to follow her dreams.
Gonzalez encourages the public to attend the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which open in Los Angeles on July 25.
“Come cheer everybody on,” she said. “We need as many people as can come!”
Award Winning Entry
Cold weather didn’t hinder the enthusiasm of the thousands that poured onto Colorado Boulevard for the 126th Rose Parade. The crowds weren’t disappointed – clear, sunny skies were a perfect canopy for the 18 bands, 18 equestrian units and 37 floats that made their way down the parade route celebrating the parade theme “Inspiring Stories.”
Several of the floats earned trophies in a variety of categories including the Founders Trophy for the City of La Cañada. The city’s entry, “To The Rescue,” was recognized as the most beautiful float built and decorated by volunteers from a community or organization.