RIVERVIEW — If you ask Mark Zak what he likes best his answer will probably be “to go fast.”
Mark’s mom, Kristen Zak, a local licensed massage therapist, says Mark has liked speed, including roller coasters, from the time he was little.
His dad, Allen, a chiropractor based in Sun City Center, got Mark involved in all kinds of sports, including bowling, cross-country running, swimming, and now cycling, both for health and to learn the rules of team sports.
Mark, 19, has autism. But his parents, and sister Emma, 14, haven’t allowed that to be a barrier to doing things other boys his age do.
Mark has excelled in so many sports that it’s obvious the inclusion with all kinds of people has done him, and those around him, a lot of good.
Mark often helps out in his parents’ office, and greets and talks to patients.
He has competed and placed in non-Special Olympic events too, including open road cycling and cross country running at Riverview High School.
“He started cycling instead of running because running hurt his feet,” Kristen Zak said. Unfortunately he broke a foot and his feet are flat so they had to find another sport.
But they did; cycling, so Mark still gets to “go fast” as he pointed out several times during the interview.
He and his dad practice together at Flatwoods trails in Tampa, doing from 28 to 30 miles on Saturdays.
His mother said at the recent Team USA training in San Diego, after everyone had ridden 20 miles and all the others were sweating and complaining, Mark said, “Can I go again?”
“He didn’t even break a sweat,” she added.
Both his parents are grateful for the things Mark has learned through sports, especially Special Olympics.
“We really appreciate the opportunity Mark is getting to participate in the World Games and all these Special Olympic sports,” said Allen Zak. “Mark has gained confidence, made friends, and has a new awareness of physical fitness.”
Allen said Mark has gone from 230 pounds down to 180 and is now in good physical shape.
The trip to San Diego in March with other Team Members and chaperones was the first time Mark and his parents had been separated. Kris Zak said she cried.
The family now plans to accompany their son to Greece for the Special Olympic Games even though it will be very expensive as local Special Olympics funds are not in place to pay for their trip.
The Zaks will receive $3,512.45 of the money made from the recent Tootsie Roll Drive by the Sun City Center Prince of Peace Knights of Columbus Council 7882 at a presentation at the church’s Conesa Hall May 24 at 7 p.m., said Tootsie Roll Drive Chairman Val Korolevich. “Our pastor, Fr. Joel Kovanis, even allowed us to make collections on Saturdays and Sundays at the church,” he said.
Mike McClusky, publicity director for the Prince of Peace Knights and editor of the group’s newsletter, has put out flyers and notices to gain attention, recognition and funds for the Zak’s trip.
Both Knights made it clear that anyone from the community is welcome at the May 24 event, so clients and friends of Mark’s parents may cheer him on and (hopefully even) donate more to the fund.
Mike said $1,000 from the Tootsie Roll Drive will also be presented to the State of Florida Special Olympics at that event.
Lou Tovey (a Knight) and his wife Mary Jane, have worked as Special Olympics volunteers for more than 10 years since they were first held at the University of South Florida.
“We knew the Knights needed to get involved because it’s a perfect fit,” Mary Jane told me. “The Knights mission statement is ‘to help the mentally challenged’ and when our sheriff’s office said they’d get volunteers for the event (in Tampa) we got right on it and have worked with them ever since.”
The Special Olympics is a perfect example of using games to teach people with mental challenges how to socialize with the non-disabled and learn how to play by rules of socially acceptable behavior, she added.
So the Knights decided to give Mark some added help and are still working hard to enable all the Zaks to get to Greece.
“It’s quite an expensive proposition,” Allen Zak told me. But they want Mark to see them there, cheering him on.
Another person who has helped Mark achieve his cycling goals is Erik Kirkland of Native Bikeworks, which is located on U.S. 301 in Riverview, two blocks south of the Bloomingdale Avenue intersection.
“We got this really good racing bike at cost,” Allen told me. “It was a big help. Racing bikes can run as high as $8,000.”
The Games in Greece will be between June 25 and July 7, his parents told me.
Mark is really looking forward to them. He said he is going to “really go fast” and is obviously proud to already be wearing the Team USA T-shirt in which he posed for the photographs for this story.