Benefield: Petaluma’s Sammy Wester heading to Special Olympics USA Games

Sammy Wester, 25, is the only athlete from Sonoma County traveling to Orlando to compete among 5,500 athletes.|

How to follow the USA Games

To follow results and coverage of the Special Olympics USA Games from June 5-12, go to

The cheering last week was really just a prelude for Sammy Wester.

As she crossed the stage under the oaks at Santa Rosa Junior College May 24 on her way to becoming a graduate of the school’s three-year College to Career program, dean of the Disabled Students Programs and Services Kimberly Starke announced to the assembled crowd Wester’s next adventure.

“She’s heading to Orlando, Florida this summer to compete in track and field events in the Special Olympics,” she said. “Congratulations Sammy.”

And there was the applause.

There will be more where that came from. The Special Olympics USA Games open Sunday in Orlando, Florida, and Wester, representing all of Northern California, will be there.

Wester, 25, made the 18-athlete roster of the NorCal Special Olympics squad.

She’ll compete in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and the running long jump.

“I like competing,” she said.

Over the course of seven days, Wester, a 2015 Casa Grande High School graduate, will compete against some of the best of the best.

About 5,500 athletes and coaches are expected to participate in front of 125,000 spectators over the course of the week.

On top of that, Wester’s got a ticket booked for Disney World.

But like all things done at a high level (and all things worth doing), it hasn’t been easy for Wester, these last few years.

With COVID interruptions, her commitment to school and her job at Oliver’s Market in Cotati, where she’s been a utility clerk for the past year, keeping focused on her running and her workouts has been tough.

Especially when athletes were forced to work out alone and classes were all via Zoom.

“Bummed, frustrated,” she said of online classes and working out alone. “I like seeing my friends there. I’m stuck at home running.”

But those solo workouts can be a kind of release, too.

“I just take off running somewhere and then walk, and have some cool downs and run,” she said.

But she stuck with the training and kept her focus on the parts she really likes: The races.

From her home in Petaluma, she ticked off how she punched her ticket to Orlando: “Marin Games in Novato, got picked two years in a row for the NorCal State games in Davis. I stayed in the dorms, that was cool, then I had to medal in that to get picked for Florida,” she said. “And I am the only one from Sonoma County that made it.”

She joins athletes from San Francisco, Fresno, Sacramento, Alameda and Santa Clara counties, among others.

One of Wester’s coaches, Judy Waller, a speech pathologist with the Sonoma County Office of Education, recalled at the statewide games in Davis 2019 when Wester was tapped to carry the torch and run side by side with a representative of a law enforcement agency.

It was a ceremonial run, but Wester doesn’t do ceremony. She does fast.

“Here was a young, healthy strapping guy and she just passed him,” Waller recalled with a chuckle. “Do not understate the power of our athletes.”

Wester, who has always liked to run, signed on to the Casa track and field team as a freshman, but decided to re-prioritize after that, she said.

“I had to focus on school work and homework,” she said.

So she and her family looked for other outlets for her athletic dreams.

“She wanted to still compete and that’s when we found the Special Olympics,” Sammy’s dad, Scott Wester, said.

Losing out on in-person workouts and in-person classes at school have been tough. Wester is a people person. It’s clear in her high-fives to classmates during the graduation ceremony last week.

And it’s clear from how she approaches practices, Waller said.

“She saw how much practice paid off and she really went for it,” she said. “She’s an amazing athlete, she’s very fast. She takes a lot of pride in what she does and her medals and she’s very much involved in the team part of it and enjoys seeing everybody. I think that got her motivated.”

“She worked her tush off,” she said.

Last week, when Wester walked in her commencement ceremony, her mortar board announced her next steps: Special Olympics, USA Games, Orlando 2022.

She affixed the image of a runner breaking the tape.

“I’m tying to get at least two golds,” she said. “I would be fine with the bronze but I don’t want that.

“But, bronze, it’s better than a ribbon.”

Spoken like a true competitor.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

How to follow the USA Games

To follow results and coverage of the Special Olympics USA Games from June 5-12, go to

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