Ross resident bests challenges, both on and off field of play

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

With the ceramic dogs, Toby jugs, dolls and Princess Di memorabilia on display, the Lardin home in Ross Township is full of collections.

But Steve Lardin, 46, has a collection greater than those of his parents. His bedroom is a showcase of an athlete's pride. Displayed on walls, shelves and even above the door are the 250 Special Olympics medals and trophies he has earned since he began competing decades ago. The medallions hang on ribbons of every color of the rainbow, and they represent diverse sports.

Lardin is quick to name them — kayaking on the river, softball, soccer, powerlifting, team handball and swimming, floor hockey, bowling and bocce. In May, he earned his most recent gold medal with Renee Kramer of Pittsburgh in bocce at the Allegheny County Special Olympics Summer Games, held at Baldwin High School in Baldwin Borough.

His trophies show his prowess in bowling, basketball and darts.

“I love every one of the sports,” said a beaming Lardin.

His athletics began with a simple announcement at age 8: “I'm gonna be in the Olympics,” he said as a student at the former Cumberland Hills School in McCandless.

His father, Frank, 82, remembers that day. Soon, he and his son were on the road as part of the North Star Specials. Frank served as a bus chaperone for more than 30 years and as site coordinator for the group.

“Today, there are 4,000 ‘Specials' in Allegheny County,” his father said. “We're the second-largest group in the state. Pennsylvania is the most active in the nation.”

Born with Down syndrome, Lardin went home with his mother, Beverly, to two older brothers. Later, another brother joined the family. There was lots of care to go around.

“His brothers used to spoil him,” his mother said.

Lardin graduated from North Hills Senior High School in Ross.

His first competitive sport was the 50-yard dash when he was 8.

“Steve was winning,” his father explained. “Then, he stopped to help pick up his friend who had fallen. He placed fourth or fifth. When they pinned a ribbon on his chest, Steve said, ‘I don't want that. I want a necklace.'”

He has been winning ever since and traveling to regional competitions.

In 2003, Lardin won the Male Athlete of the Year for Pennsylvania. He received an engraved silver bowl at a Special Olympics banquet in Harrisburg.

“He jumped 4 feet when he got the trophy,” his father said. “He competed in 13 sports.”

Coaching is the key to any Special Olympics athlete's success.

Linda Gitzen coaches bocce and has been with the organization for 26 years. The No. 1 skill in bocce, she said, is strategy. Players consider their best move, whether to hit the “jack,” bowl their ball closest to it or knock an opponent's ball away. The team closest to the jack scores a point.

Gitzen, of Ross Township, considers Lardin “an excellent athlete.”

On and off the field, “Steve is a wonderful, caring person and extremely polite. It overwhelms you,” she said, describing how he holds doors open and helps people out of cars.

“He tries his best in everything he does and helps his teammates.”

When Lardin isn't swimming, shooting hoops or playing bocce — his maternal grandfather was a national champion of bowling on the green in England — he's an at-home kind of a guy.

He takes care of his dog, Toto; loves to cook and clean; and cares for his mother, who just turned 81. He might even be volunteering.

“He won't miss the turkey bingo with the North Star group at the West View fire hall,” his father said.

The best part of Special Olympics is the friendships, Lardin said.

“I meet new friends and see old friends from years ago,” he said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353.

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