Wiedmer: Ragsdale skates to gold glory

Wiedmer: Ragsdale skates to gold glory

February 16th, 2009 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

Haikeem Ragsdale was disappointed. The Special Olympics' World Winter Games were less than three weeks away and the 19-year-old had just failed to win a single gold medal in his speed-skating events at the Tennessee state meet in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

This was not the way Chattanooga's lone participant in the World Games had expected things to go after a promising four-day training session in Copper Mountain, Colo., in December. The 2008 Red Bank High grad suddenly needed a pep talk, especially after almost always winning gold in earlier Special Olympics track and field competitions.

"I told Haikeem, 'You did great,'" said Area 4 director Judy Rogers. "You'll do fine in Idaho."

Most of us would define "fine" as slightly better than OK. Fine might have been Ragsdale completing all three of his speed-skating events without falling down. Fine certainly would have been three bronze medals.

And Ragsdale did win three medals in Boise in his three races - the 111-meter, 222-meter and 333-meter sprints. He won three gold medals.

Three.

Gold.

Medals.

This from a guy who had never slipped on a pair of ice skates until a year ago, rollerblades being his previous skate of choice. How special is that?

"I've got leg skills," Ragsdale shrugged Sunday night about an hour after he returned to Chattanooga. "I never fall down."

Rogers will quickly tell you that no Area 4 athlete has ever won three gold medals in world competition before. And these athletes only get one crack at the world level. Everyone's one and done on the world Special Olympics stage.

But Ragsdale has also been a gold-medal guy in everything he's embraced.

"Haikeem is a really good kid," said Natalie Nelson, his special ed teacher at Red Bank. "He's very focused on everything he does. He's pretty good at everything he does."

But pretty good isn't gold medal good. The World Games were host to 3,000 athletes from 85 countries. And most of those didn't have to drive two hours from their home just to find a practice ice rink.

"We had Haikeem at the training camp in Colorado in December," said Ken Hart, who has coached speed skating in the last three Special Olympic world games. "You don't know you have potential until you're presented with an opportunity. This was a very rare thing to happen, but he worked hard and he listened to us."

Still, it was during a mixer dance for the athletes during training camp that Hart believes much turned around for Ragsdale.

"Haikeem was pretty quiet until someone played the Macarena song," recalled Hart. "He immediately started dancing. All of a sudden, he'd changed."

After Ragsdale won his second gold medal on Wednesday, several fans with knowledge of the mixer began doing the Macarena in the stands. Naturally, the 5-8, 135-pound Ragsdale broke out a couple of moves on the victory stand.

"The crowd loved it," said Hart.

But how does anyone go from novice to No. 1 in one year?

Ragsdale says part of it was his routine. Each race was preceded by a ham sandwich, lots of water and the playing of country star Kenny Chesney's "Don't Blink" through his earphones.

Hart added, "Haikeem really came out of his shell. When he first came to us, everything was a one-word answer. By the end of the World Games everything was complete sentences and good conversations. He was in a world of his peers and he really thrived on that."

His World Games behind him, Ragsdale now hopes to thrive in a Tennessee Rehabilitation Centers program designed to help him develop job skills for warehousing or auto detailing.

But for the next few weeks he says he's happy to return home to his mother Jackie's chili dogs, his dog Soulja and watching his favorite pro wrestler, John Cena.

And what about the medals themselves? Will he give them to his mom? Frame them? Hide them away?

Tugging on them as they hung around his neck, Ragsdale smiled and said, "I'm going to keep them for my memories."

May we never again downplay the magic of the Macarena.


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