Sophie McGarrah of Hamilton could barely sleep in the days leading up to the competition at Harvard last month.
For three straight days, McGarrah, 9, was "up with the birds at 5:15 a.m.," said her mother, Beth Dowd.
Dowd wasn't bothered in the least by her daughter's lack of sleep. A couple of years ago, the Special Olympics gymnastics team from the Yellow Jackets Club in Middleton didn't even exist, so her daughter wouldn't have had an opportunity to participate.
But thanks to former Masconomet gymnast Heather Boepple of Topsfield, who founded the program in March of 2007, McGarrah and seven other girls in the 8-13 age bracket represented the Yellow Jackets in the state's Special Olympic Games at Harvard recently.
"We were so looking forward to it," said Dowd. "It was Father's Day weekend, but we wouldn't have traded (participation at the Special Olympics) for anything."
The Yellow Jackets fared well at the competition. McGarrah finished second in the floor routine and Alex Talbot, 10, of North Andover placed third on floor. Julia Morin, 9, of Hamilton, Caroline Clavin, 8, of Newbury and Devin DeSisto of Andover were first in the all-around in their respective age groups and levels of competition. Meanwhile, Kayla Snover, 12, of Lynnfield was second on vault and Olivia Leahy, 8, of North Andover finished third on beam.
Still, everyone involved in the Yellow Jackets program would agree that the results were secondary to the sunshine that this relatively new program has brought into the kids' lives.
"You keep thinking, who are these people giving their time and effort to help these kids?" said Dowd. "It restores your faith in human beings."
Boepple, who graduated from the University of Vermont after going to Masconomet, organized a Special Olympics team under the Yellow Jackets banner after getting encouragement from Carie Miele, the event director for gymnastics for Massachusetts Special Olympics. Boepple had no coaching experience with Special Olympians, but she had common sense, smarts and recruiting skills in assembling like-minded gymnasts to coach the kids, who required one-on-one attention.
Don Lothrop, owner of the Yellow Jackets club, donated the gym time and Boepple and her coaching crew, including Rachel Pratt, longtime Masconomet coach Wendy Beard and the high school gymnasts who regularly work out at the club, organized practice sessions on Saturdays from 4:15-5:15 p.m.. The overall training process in getting ready for the Massachusetts Special Olympics went from September to November and then again from March to June.
"We decided to start small because we'd never done anything like this before," said Boepple. "We worked with five girls (ages 8-13) the first year (2007) and I had a lot to learn. We tried different (gymnastics) formats to see what was going to work with these kids. The girls in the class have such a great time. It's the most fun group that I've ever coached."
Boepple's program expanded to 10 girls this year and there was no problem getting them individual coaching. As many as 25 coaches, most of them high school athletes who adjusted their own schedules during the year, worked with the Special Olympians.
"The whole purpose of the program is to give the kids a chance to love gymnastics," said Boepple, who has a full-time job with a medical device company based in Medford. "They get a lot out of it. We've seen an amazing growth in the kids confidence. At first they were tentative about being in a large space like the gym. It could be overwhelming to them. But now they're happy to be the center of attention in front of a crowd.
"The girls who are in their second year of doing gymnastics are a lot more independent and their physical capabilities have improved. It was a huge accomplishment for these girls to compete in the Special Olympics and to do what they did."
For Boepple, the feedback she's been getting from the parents has been its own reward. At one of the qualifying meets for the Special Olympics, the parents of eight year old Caroline Clavin of Newbury told Boepple how impressed they were with their daughter's development through the program. "They said, 'We didn't see this coming with Caroline. She's come a long way,'" related Beopple.
Beth Dowd has also noticed the long term positive effects on her daughter Sophie and the other girls who are involved in the program.
"I wouldn't understate the movement part of it," said Dowd. "Just to see the (strides) they've made in moving and making a connection to their bodies, there's some brain development there. So there's some success there, too."
Beard, who coached Boepple for four years at Masconomet, walked into unchartered territory when she committed to the program. She's been blown away by what she's seen.
"It takes a special person to do something like this," Beard said of Boepple. "She does a lot behind the scenes that people don't know about. And it's amazing to see these kids grow and to watch them learning these skills. This is definitely the most rewarding thing I've done in 25 years of coaching."
Meet the gymnastics Special Olympians
The following girls competed for head coach Heather Boepple's Yellow Jackets team at the Mass. Special Olympics held at Harvard University recently:
Sophie McGarrah, 9, of Hamilton
Julia Morin, 9, of Hamilton
Kayla Snover, 12, of Lynnfield
Caroline Clavin, 8, of Newbury
Colleen McPhee, 13, of North Andover
Alexandara Talbot,10, of North Andover'
Olivia Leahy, 8, of North Andover
Devin DeSisto, 13, of Andover