By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
A year ago, when he was a freshman at Kearny High School, Steve Koziel went to the NJSIAA Meet of Champions and came away with three medals.
Not bad, considering Koziel, who was born with cerebral palsy, has to compete while in a specialized wheelchair, devised for athletic events.
Now, a year later, Koziel has taken a giant leap as a competitor, winning six medals at this year’s Meet of Champions, held recently at Frank Jost Field in South Plainfield.
Koziel won three gold medals in the field events – the javelin, shot put and discus – and three bronze medals in the track events – the 100-meters, 400-meters and 800-meters.
“I knew I had a good shot to get three medals,” Koziel said. “I knew I’d do well in the field events, because I compete against most of the others. But the track events were a nice surprise.”
What made Koziel’s performance even more impressive is that he has had limited chances to compete this spring, maybe a handful at best.
“I competed at the St. Dominic’s meet earlier in the season and a couple of high school meets, but when everyone else is in the county and state meets, I pull back,” Koziel said. “I’m pretty much training and racing on my own. It’s always fun to see the times. It’s all about you and that wall you put up. But it’s much better competing against someone.”
Koziel said that he trains all year long to get ready for the Meet of Champions.
“The Meet of Champions is definitely my main inspiration,” Koziel said. “It’s hard to train for something all year round. I did cross country indoor to get ready. It’s all year long for that one meet.”
So Koziel’s hard work paid off, because he went from three medals to six.
And for his efforts, Koziel has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. Koziel is the final honoree for the 2012-2013 scholastic sports season. The Observer will present both the Male and Female Athletes of the Year in the weeks to come.
“The track portion made me excited,” Koziel said. “The way it’s set up, for wheelchair and ambulatory athletes, based on the ability. I’m considered a high functioning CP (cerebral palsy) athlete. For me to come back with bronze medals is incredible in theory, considering it came against athletes better than me.”
Koziel will now train for the Junior World Games in Puerto Rico August 6. He received an invitation from the coordinators of Team USA for Paralympic Athletes.
“I’ll be at the track (at Kearny High School) practically every day getting ready for that,” Koziel said. “It’s a really big accomplishment for me to be selected for the United States Junior Team. They take only the best of the best.”
Koziel has been getting a lot of local support, especially the Harrison Knights of Columbus and former Harrison Fire Chief Tom Dolaghan, someone who has been a friend to Koziel, “I guess since birth,” Koziel said.
The Knights of Columbus recently held a candlelight bowling event that raised money in order that Koziel could go to Puerto Rico.
“Tom, his family and the Knights of Columbus are like my extended family,” Koziel said. “It just goes to show me the tremendous support I have from the community and especially the whole Dolaghan clan.”
Koziel said that his trip to Puerto Rico has been assisted by several others as well.
“I have also received personal donations from people in the community,” Koziel said. “It’s also come from my family and friends. It’s great to see the kind of support I have received. It really means a lot to me.”
Koziel said that he’s determined more than ever since his incredible performance at the Meet of Champions.
“There are some periods, some days, some weeks where I hit a wall with my training,” Koziel said. “But after the Meet of Champions, I’ve had a good surge. I now have an idea where I’m going this summer. I know I haven’t peaked.”
Added Koziel, “The Meet of Champs was great for me, but my main goal was to try to expose other high school students with disabilities and to motivate them to get active, to let them know that there are opportunities out there. You can do anything as long as you set your mind to it.”
Koziel received First Team All-Hudson County Para- Athlete at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association awards dinner last week.
Next month, from July 5 through July 14, Koziel will competing at the National Junior Disability Championships in Minnesota.
Koziel also recently helped friend and fellow Paralympian Ryan Chalmers, who recently finished a 3,500 mile “Push Across America” from Los Angeles, ending in Central Park, to raise awareness about athletes with disabilities. Koziel was able to go the last five miles of the journey alongside Chalmers. If you would like to read more about that event, log on to www.pushacrossamerica.org.
Needless to say, Koziel has enjoyed an incredible athletic career despite his disabilities. It’s proven by the array of medals he has collected over the last two years.