You might notice that Mike Van Zee has down syndrome when you meet him, but you will definitely notice his infectious smile! But Mike wasn’t always as happy as he is today. After enduring years of being made fun of and bullied at school, he developed issues with feelings of anger. Despite the adults in his life trying to help him deal with these emotions and find a successful outlet for his anger, he still struggled with those feelings. That is when Pat Graves came into Mike’s life and started bringing him to the old YMCA building near Riverfront Park to exercise and lift weights. Lifting proved to be the perfect outlet and Mike has become a much happier person during his journey. So happy in fact he has remained an active member for over 20 years!
While lifting and the physical exertion of exercise proved a fantastic way to redirect his emotions positively, it was the community and acceptance he found here that made just as big of an impact on his growth. He hadn’t experienced being in a welcoming environment before coming to the Y. Here, he was able to connect with members and staff alike, some of whom have also become mentors. His whole family are members at the Y and enjoy coming and spending time together. When asked what he likes most about the YMCA he simply states “The Y is a good place and it makes me happy to be here. This is my home.”
After coming on a regular basis for a couple of years, Mike found the confidence to start competing with the Special Olympics. He competes in several events including bowling, figure skating, speed skating, and some running events in track and field. However, he is best known for competing in powerlifting events. Despite standing only 4′ 11” and weighing 127lbs, Mike can deadlift 270lbs and bench press 200lbs. He has been to nationals for Special Olympics representing Washington State four times winning four (4) gold medals each time. He even represented the U.S. at the international competition in Greece, taking home a bronze medal.
Another accomplishment he is particularly proud of is his job working at Taco Time for several years. Mike has discovered an enjoyment for other activities as well, such as playing on a team in Hoopfest, something that may have proved difficult had he not overcome his anger and communication challenges. Now, whether he is coming to swim or workout, you will always see him smiling and happy to be at the YMCA doing what he truly enjoys.