By Jim Hague
If you think Michael Phelps was impressive in collecting medal after medal at the Olympic Games, then wait until you hear about the exploits of 15-year-old Steve Koziel.
The soon-to-be Kearny High School sophomore followed up his impressive performance at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions with an even more eye-opening week at the National Junior Disability Championships, held for nine days recently in Mesa, Ariz.
Koziel was looking forward to the event for the entire summer, rigorously training with his team, the Lightning Wheels, to prepare for the event.
Koziel was born with cerebral palsy, which has limited his ability to walk regularly. But the childhood infliction has not deterred Koziel from becoming a top flight athlete, competing in his specially-built athletic wheelchair.
During the nine-day stretch of the games, which were held at Mesa Community College, Mesa High School and the Kino Aquatic Center, Koziel collected an astounding total of 17 medals, competing in track and field, swimming, power lifting and weightlifting, the pentathlon and relays with his Lightning Wheels teammates.
That’s no misprint. Koziel amassed 17 medals in the span of a little more than a week. It took Phelps 12 years and three Olympics to collect all his medals. Koziel got his all in one shot.
“I competed in everything,” Koziel said. “I wasn’t afraid to try anything.”
Sure looks that way. In track and field, Koziel won the 100-meter, the 200-meter, the 400-meter and the 800-meter. He finished second in the 1,500-meter event. Hey, you can’t win them all.
In the field events, Koziel was second in the shot put, the javelin and the discus.
So that’s a total of eight medals – four of which were gold and four silver – in the track and field events. It was believed that track and field were the only events he competed in, making the most of his specialized wheelchair.
However, it’s not all that Koziel does.
Unbeknownst to this reporter, Koziel is also a swimmer. It’s an incredible feat for someone who has cerebral palsy.
“I can do it all,” Koziel said, with a laugh. “The only events I don’t compete in are archery and table tennis. I do everything else.”
In the pool, Koziel won the 50-meter breaststroke in 1:29.32, was second in the 50-meter backstroke, was third in the 50-meter freestyle and third in the 100-meter backstroke.
If you’re keeping score at home, that’s 12 medals.
It gets better. Koziel also competed in the weightlifting competition and took home gold medals in both power lifting and general weightlifting. He’s able to lift 120 pounds in power lifting and 135 in weight lifting, doing so from a special bench.
That gives him 14 medals, seven of which were gold medals.
There are more events. Koziel competed in the pentathlon, which consists of the 100-meter, the shot put, the discus, the javelin and the 800-meter. He finished second in that event.
Finally, as a member of a relay squad with the Lightning Wheels, Koziel was part of the 4×100 relay that finished first and the 800-meter medley relay that finished second. Koziel ran the opening leg of the medley relay, a 100-meter leg.
So his trip to Arizona led to an astounding 17 medals. It’s a wonder how Koziel was able to get through the airport security coming home carrying all that hardware.
Koziel thought he could do well in Arizona.
“I kind of hard an idea of what to expect out there,” Koziel said. “I had been to a couple before, so I knew what the competition was like.”
But 17 medals? Seventeen? It’s unconscionable.
“I never thought I could do this good,” Koziel said. “I just planned to go out there and do my best, do something that I love to do and have some fun.”
Koziel’s performance caught the eye of Cathy Sellers, who is the director of the Paralympic Track and Field Performances for the United States Olympic Committee based in Colorado Springs.
In an e-mail, Sellers instructed Koziel that he will be listed soon among the top performers and will be added to the world rankings. It means that he has a chance to compete internationally in the future.
“She wrote me and told me that I was doing a great job for someone my age and that I should apply for an IPC (International Paralympic Committee) license,” Koziel said. “That will enable me to compete in international events.”
Koziel said that no matter what the results are, he always has a lot of fun.
“It’s always really exciting for me to compete,” Koziel said. “I meet so many people that I compete against and they become friends, while there are also some rivalries going on. Believe it or not, there is always pressure, but nothing like the pressure I put on myself.”
However, there’s no question that Koziel will always remember his recent trip to Arizona. At least, he’ll have something to talk about with his classmates when school resumes next month and people ask him what he did over his summer vacation.
“You can definitely say that I have something exciting to talk about,” Koziel said. Sure does.