College of Medicine student honored for positively impacting the lives of Special Olympians
As a volunteer with Special Olympics, Taryn Mockus has invested her time, knowledge, energy, and spirit over the years in programs and events that enrich the lives of all athletes she supports. For Mockus, the personal rewards for her involvement are reflected in the achievements of those she mentors.
In 2015, Special Olympics organizations at the local and state levels ensured that Mockus would forever possess tangible symbols of appreciation for her dedication and commitment. A third-year doctoral candidate in neuroscience at Penn State’s College of Medicine, Mockus was selected as the recipient of the Unified Sports Partner of the Year Award for Special Olympics Pennsylvania and Area M, which encompasses Cumberland, Perry, Dauphin and northern York counties.
The Unified Sports Partner of the Year Award recognizes a volunteer who “makes a long-term tremendous positive impact upon the lives of Special Olympics Athletes.”
Unified Sports is defined by the Special Olympics as “promoting social inclusion through shared sports training and competition experiences.” Teams are composed of individuals with and without intellectual disabilities.
“When I received the award, I was shocked and overwhelmed,” Mockus said. “My coach, Brett Eshenour, didn’t even tell me that he had nominated me! Receiving this award from the Special Olympics organization was incredibly humbling. To me, athletes live and compete with unbelievable dignity and strength. When I received the award, it felt like the Special Olympics organization thought of me that way. It was an amazing honor.”
Eshenour, head coach of the short track speed skating program for Area M, said Mockus is “a tremendous role model, mentor, and big sister, not only for her athlete, but also the entire team. She provides a tremendous work ethic example to our athletes and her fellow partners. More importantly she provides an example of how to treat everyone with respect and dignity.”
Bob Long, long distance running and walking head coach and a member of the Area M Special Olympics management team, described Mockus as “a very dedicated and responsible volunteer.”
“The first time I met Taryn, she had brought a Special Olympics athlete to their first long distance running and walking practice,” Long said. “Taryn introduced the athlete as her “friend,” which I thought said a lot about Taryn’s attitude toward athletes. Since then, I have seen that Taryn develops a high degree of camaraderie with the athletes she works with, as a volunteer and a Unified Partner.”
A native of Branford, Connecticut, Mockus received her bachelor’s degree in biology, with a concentration in neuroscience, at the University of Rochester. Her research involves using a mouse model to investigate the human disease progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). PML is a brain demyelinating disease caused by the John Cunningham virus (JCV).
Mockus has been a volunteer with the Special Olympics Unified Sports program since she was in high school. At present, she coaches track field and is a Unified Partner for long distance running and speed skating. She also helps organize the bocce Olympic Village for the Fall Classic, a fall sports competition in the Hershey area. Mockus recruits graduate students and medical students as volunteers for the competition, providing impactful community service opportunities. She also devotes time to several other service-oriented projects throughout the year.
“I got involved with Special Olympics because one of my neighbor’s kids had Down Syndrome,” Mockus said. “I started baby-sitting him when he was three and I was thirteen. It took me a while to understand what Downs meant because, to me, this boy was creative, funny, and very social. I couldn’t rationalize how he could have a disability. But, I came to realize that his disability didn’t matter. He is just like everyone else, and I have learned to respect him as such.”
Mockus played soccer as a child, and competed on her high school track and field team. In college, she was a member of the women’s club ice hockey team. She continues to play on a co-ed adult hockey team and enjoys running.
Asked if she makes an effort to impart particular messages to the athletes, Mockus said, “The athletes share more with me than I share with them. They have shown me incredible sportsmanship, courage, respect, and perseverance. Oftentimes, after a competition, athletes will turn to their competitors and congratulate them on a good race. They are constantly trying to go beyond what is expected of them. My favorite thing, though, is watching teammates interact with each other. To them, disabilities don’t matter. In conversations and anything else, they respect each other and look past disabilities and differences.
“They remind me through their actions and friendship that no matter how bad things may seem, it is not the end. If you are strong and honest with yourself, you will be able to overcome every obstacle. Getting to share in that drive and determination is an overwhelming experience.”