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Special Olympics New Jersey

Empowering People with Different Abilities

By Ilene Dube | (Photo Courtesy of Special Olympics)

When Monica Koppstein helps customers at the checkout at Costco on Quakerbridge Road in Lawrence, most notice her pleasant demeanor and unwavering focus on her work. What they may not know is that she is a three-time Olympic gold medal winner.

The 36-year-old has been participating in Special Olympics since she was 12. Koppstein has trained and competed in aquatics, basketball, cross-country skiing, power lifting, soccer, and track. She was one of the original members of the Special Olympics New Jersey cycling team, created in 2012, as well as the snowshoeing team, founded in 2009. Bowling is the sport in which she won her gold medals.

“Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ), based in Lawrence Township, offers year-round sports training and athletic competition in Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities by giving them continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness, demonstrate courage, experience joy, and participate in a sharing of gifts, skills, and friendship,” says the nonprofit’s website. “Athletes are empowered to explore opportunities for greater participation beyond sports training and competition, including coach and referee training, as well as serving on committees and spokespeople.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver at a Special Olympics awards ceremony. (

It all began in the 1950s and early 1960s, when American philanthropist, statesperson, social worker, and pioneer Eunice Kennedy Shriver saw how unjustly people with intellectual disabilities were treated. Shriver witnessed this up close — her sister, Rosemary, had an intellectual disability.

Eunice and Rosemary’s childhoods were filled with sports: they swam, sailed, skied, and played football. Eunice realized that many with intellectual disabilities did not have a place to play. From her own experience she knew that sports provided common ground to unite people from all walks of life. She knew she had to do something to change this and began by starting a summer camp for children with disabilities in her own backyard. For her work in establishing Special Olympics, Shriver received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

By the late 1960s, Special Olympics had come to New Jersey. Bessie Cutter Perlman, a retired teacher at the School for the Deaf in West Trenton, started sports programming for individuals with intellectual disabilities at the E.R. Johnstone Training Center in Bordentown. In 1969, participants from the Bayonne Recreation Department and the Johnstone Training Center represented the Garden State at the Eastern Regional Special Olympics at the University of Maryland.

Today, New Jersey has one of the premier Special Olympics programs in the world, with thousands of athletes participating in more than 260 competitions. The Winter Games start in December with floor hockey and volleyball competitions, followed by basketball and bowling in January. February brings skiing, snowboarding, and figure skating.

“As a high school freshman, Monica began bowling in a Special Olympics Unified Bowling League coached by a parent of a Special Olympics athlete, a neighbor and a Rider University professor,” says Nantanee Koppstein, Monica’s mother. Rider students bowl and compete alongside the Special Olympics bowlers. “Monica especially enjoyed the opportunity to get to know Rider teammates.”

Members of the showshoe team at a previous Special Olympics New Jersey Winter Games, from left, Lisa Kmiec, Tyffany Sukiennik, Megan Clarke, Jackie Applebaum, Becky Scheick, Megan Cloyes, Ashley DiMattia, and Monica Koppstein. (Photo courtesy of Nantanee Koppstein)

SONJ’s “Unified Sports” connects athletes with and without disabilities on the same team. The idea is that through shared training and competition, a quick path to friendship and understanding is formed.

Koppstein also took part in SONJ’s first unified indoor rowing program at the Princeton Boathouse, where she won a race in her division. She describes it as a most memorable experience, “rowing with Princeton University crew team members.” SONJ athletes were invited to train on the erg, coached by crew team members. “We practiced rowing on the Boathouse’s tank and we rowed with the crew team on Lake Carnegie.”

In 2014, as part of a SONJ fundraiser, Koppstein completed a three-hour spinathon at CanDo Fitness Center in Plainsboro, where she attended spinning classes.

Indeed, SONJ has become a social hub for Koppstein. “Most of the people I hang out with are fellow athletes,” she says. “We go to movies and parties.”

Through her participation in Special Olympics, “Monica has become healthier and developed good habits with respect to physical activities and nutrition,” says her mother, an economist and disability rights advocate. “She has gained greater confidence and learned to do her best, not only on the playing field but also at work and in everyday life. Working well on a team is an important, transferable, and lifelong skill.”

The same qualities that make Koppstein good at her job — handling demanding customers and the rush of fast-paced requirements — are what make her perfectly suited to being an athlete. “She doesn’t melt under stress,” notes her mother. “She is self-motivated to train and exercise in order to stay fit and healthy.”

Photos courtesy of Special Olympics and Special Olympics New Jersey

Special Olympics athletes recite an oath at the beginning of each game: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“Monica knows that winning or losing is not the main point,” says her mother. “Being inspired to do her best, while also enjoying the activities, helps prepare Monica to be a productive member of the community.”

When she’s not competing or training, working out at the gym or taking Pilates lessons at Princeton Fitness Center, Koppstein enjoys making art in her notebooks and word search puzzles. She is part of a driven family; her older brother, David, who lives in Germany, was a competitive cycler while an undergraduate at Yale and earning his Ph.D. in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Indeed, attending the World Games in Shanghai in 2007, where she won a gold and silver medal, was a highlight of Koppstein’s life. “The trip to China was different from any other trips I have taken,” she says. “I felt more independent not having my parents with me for long periods of time. All my coaches encourage their athletes to do their best and help them find ways to reach their goals. They make sure that teams stay together, stay focused, and be on time — all while having fun.”

Like everyone else, Koppstein had to take a break during the pandemic, but returned to bowling in fall 2022 and has added pickleball to her repertoire. “I restarted cycling this fall but have not returned to rowing because I have to work on Saturdays when practice happens,” she says. She plans to return to powerlifting this season as well. “It’s fun to work out and practice with friends, unified partners, and coaches.”

“We are lucky to live in an area where the community embraces and provides opportunities to those with different abilities,” says Koppstein’s mother, Nantanee.

And Koppstein is grateful to her parents for all the driving to practices, workouts, and games. They provide the support she needs and “let me quit when I do not want to continue.”

Upcoming Special Olympics New Jersey Events:

January 6-7
2024 Winter Games — Volleyball
Galloway Township Middle School
100 South Reeds Road, Galloway

January 6-7
2024 Winter Games — Floor Hockey
Stockton University
101 Vera King Farris Drive, Galloway

January 13
2024 Polar Bear Plunge at Wildwood
10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Wildwoods Convention Center
4501 Boardwalk, Wildwood

January 14
2024 North Basketball League
9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Woodrow Wilson Middle School
1400 Van Houten Avenue, Clifton

January 14
2024 East Basketball League
9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Carl Sandburg Middle School
3439 County Road 516, Old Bridge

January 14
2024 South Basketball League
9 a.m.-3 p.m.
RiverWinds Community Center
100 Riverwinds Drive,
West Deptford

January 14
2024 Central Basketball League
9 a.m.-3 p.m.
SONJ Complex and
Hun School of Princeton
1 Eunice Kennedy Shriver Way, Lawrenceville
172 Winant Road, Princeton

January 21
2024 Central Basketball League
9 a.m.-3 p.m.
SONJ Complex and
Hun School of Princeton
1 Eunice Kennedy Shriver Way, Lawrenceville
172 Winant Road, Princeton

February 5-6
2024 Winter Games —
Alpine Skiing and Snowboarding
Mountain Creek
200 Route 94, Vernon

February 5-6
2024 Winter Games —
XC and Snowshoe
National Winter Activities Center
44 Breakneck Road,
Vernon Township

February 11
2024 Winter Games —
Figure Skating
Codey Arena
560 Northfield Avenue,
West Orange

For more events and information, visit

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