Matthew Wright fell in love with Special Olympics volunteer Marika McCaddon and then he quickly fell in love with the Special Olympics.
Wright now assists McCaddon, his fiance, in Whatcom County Special Olympics swimming and she helps assist Wright and Aramis Johnson with the basketball program.
They helped guide a Whatcom County basketball team to its first state tournament competition over the weekend in the 2013 Special Olympics Washington Winter Games at Wenatchee.
"I've been working with Special Olympians for about four years," said Wright, a 28-year-old Bellingham resident who serves as a lifeguard at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center and works at the Red Robin restaurant.
"That first vision I had of seeing the athletes' joy stays with you forever," he said in a phone interview. "Now I just keep looking for more visions. It's my way of feeling high."
Their Special Olympics basketball team resembles the style of the highly successful Unified Soccer program in many of the state high schools, including those in Bellingham.
Two partners without disabilities, teenagers Jeff Delgado and Ana Cervantes, take the basketball court to play with Special Olympics athletes.
Wright lists his Special Olympians as Esteban Cruz, Todd Childs, Mark Teeter, Matt Chunphakvenn and Milton Jimenez.
"We go from age 16 (Cruz) to 40 (Teeter)," said Wright, pointing out how much Special Olympians can gain from what is essentially also an inter-generational athletic program. "Our team started playing just before Christmas."
He noted they finished second in recent qualifying competition in Stanwood.
"Just the joy and excitement of the athletes and volunteers," Wright said, when asked what was most special about coaching Special Olympians. "Nobody takes anything for granted."
Wright and McCaddon both enjoyed successful high school swimming careers, Wright at Central Kitsap and McCaddon at Juanita in Kirkland.
"Marika began volunteering for Special Olympics about five years ago and wants to make a career of working with people with disabilities," said Wright, who still swims with the Bellingham Bay Masters. "I had never had a connection with Special Olympics, and now I plan to stay with it forever. Marika and I both feel that way."
Wright, also an enthusiastic Special Olympics bowling coach, said there's nothing more rewarding than "seeing the Special Olympians having the time of their life in sports."
Wright said he's especially impressed with the sportsmanship of Special Olympians, who cheer baskets by both their own team and the opponent.
"Our Special Olympians are high-functioning and they're really helping me understand the sport," said Wright, who likes basketball but was not a player in high school. "I'm learning right along with them."