“We call him ‘Park the Shark’”, said Julie Gilmer, mother of 23-year-old, Special Olympics Minnesota athlete, Park Gilmer.  

“That’s my nickname,” clarified Park. “Every time I swim, I wear temporary shark tattoos on my back and one shark on each of my arm muscles.”

Park flexed those muscles in a big way at the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Florida where he earned a silver medal in the 50-meter backstroke swim and fifth place ribbons in the 4×50 meter relay and 100-meter freestyle. After his flight back to Minnesota, Park’s aunt and uncle drove him to his hometown of Buffalo in their Corvette. Police escorted their car to the Buffalo fire station where 200 people welcomed him and cheered his name. At the party, Kare 11 news did an interview of Park asking how it felt to be a Special Olympics medalist.   

“I was nervous to be on the news,” said Park. “But I was very inspired and happy to represent my hometown of Buffalo and the state of Minnesota at USA Games.”

Dale Gilmer, Park’s dad, says USA Games brought a lot of attention to Special Olympics Minnesota in their community. “Park became kind of the poster boy for Buffalo Stampede Special Olympics,” said Dale. “We can’t go anywhere without someone recognizing him and congratulating him.”  

In the past two years, Park has been featured on multiple television news programs and had a story written about him in the Buffalo newspaper. The local ice arena hosted a “Park Gilmer night,” and most recently, he sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” with his Buffalo Stampede teammates at a Minnesota Twins game.  

“The sense of belonging and achieving that Special Olympics has given our whole family has been an amazing experience,” said Julie. 

Park at 2022 USA Games
The Gilmer family at Park’s welcome home party after 2022 USA Games

Since 2019, Dale and Julie have served as Heads of Delegation for the Buffalo Stampede. They took on the leadership roles when Park first started his athletic career with Special Olympics Minnesota.  

“Park had a lot of trouble at school,” recalled Julie. “But once he started swimming, he became such a different person. He found the thing he really enjoyed doing and he was good at it. From then on, we knew we’d be involved in Special Olympics for the long haul.”

As Heads of Delegation for the Buffalo Stampede, Dale and Julie manage operations for around 140 Special Olympics athletes. They are in charge of communicating with families and making sure athletes have their physicals up-to-date. They find gym and field space, schedule practice times, place athletes on teams and everything in between. While it’s a lot of work, Dale and Julie both agree that the volunteering efforts they put into Special Olympics Minnesota have enriched their lives tremendously.  

Julie and Dale Gilmer

“It’s belonging to a group where everybody has a different story, but at the same time it’s the same for all of us,” said Dale. “It has changed our lives. Who knows where we’d be right now if it weren’t for Special Olympics Minnesota and sports.”

When Dale and Julie decided to settle down and start a family, they had difficulties. After trying to have biological children for seven years, the couple turned to adoption. First, they welcomed Park’s older brother, Russell, into the family. Both he and Park were born prematurely in South Korea. “Russell was an awesome baby,” recalled Julie. “The first night he slept for 18 hours and I didn’t know if I should wake him up, but Dale’s mom reassured me that he was fine. He was just a really good sleeper.”  

Then Park came four years later. “Park was different from the beginning,” said Julie. “He was colicky and didn’t hit certain milestones when they expected him to.” Eventually, the family turned to Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) for guidance in how to best care for Park.  

Park with his swim teammates and coach at 2022 USA Games

As they reflect on that time in their lives, Julie admits it was hard for Russell to understand why things were different for his brother. “When you have a sibling with special needs, it can feel like your parents are spending more time with him, which is true,” said Julie. “It was hard for Russell to understand why Park could get away with some things he couldn’t, but they’ve gotten closer as they’ve grown.”  

As an athlete in high school, Russell loved sports and saw how they made a positive impact on his brother’s life. “I think Special Olympics has brought us closer because it’s the thing that made Park into who he is now, and kind of me too since I’ve been involved for so long,” said Russell. 

Now, Russell is a dedicated softball and poly hockey coach for Special Olympics Minnesota. “I love how happy it makes everyone,” said Russell. “Win or lose, everyone seems genuinely happy to be there. That’s the best part for me.”  

Park is proud to have his family be a part of his Special Olympics journey. “I’m really happy to have them all as coaches, including my big brother. If my family is a little extra hard on me, I can handle it,” said Park.

Park’s extended family is involved in his athletic life and Special Olympics Minnesota too. The Gilmers have a number of relatives in the Buffalo community, and they love to spread the word about Park and his achievements. “My sister knows everybody in town and she gets the word out that we run the delegation,” said Julie. “She brags about her nephew whenever she can.”  

Park’s great aunt even swam with him while he trained for the USA Games. “She’d take him to the gym and time him,” said Julie. “She’d swim with him once in a while too, but she was no match for Park.”  

Whether it’s his great aunt or a fellow Special Olympics athlete, Park admits he doesn’t really like to lose. “I never did,” said Park. “But now I just say to myself, if I win or lose, no matter what happens, I just want to do the best I can for me and my family.”

Park’s parents share how his attitude about losing has changed during his time with Special Olympics Minnesota. At his first swim meet in seventh grade, Park won medals in his first two races. Then in his third race, he won a ribbon. “Park took the ribbon and threw it on the ground and said, ‘I don’t do ribbons,’ and stormed off,” remembered Dale. “That was the first time we realized just how competitive he is.”  

Julie said it was something they talked about a lot after that moment. “We told him that’s not what it’s about,” said Julie. “Just as long as you tried your hardest and gave it your all is what matters.”

Their words and coaching helped Park soak up the moment in his biggest competition yet at the USA Games. “He went to Florida with an awesome attitude,” said Dale. “Even with the ribbons, it was like he took gold.”  

Park hopes to compete again in swimming at the 2026 Special Olympics USA Games that will be hosted in Minnesota. He already knows that if he’s selected, his parents, brother, relatives and the Buffalo Stampede supporters will be ready to cheer him on.  

Park’s next big meet is the 2023 Summer Games, Special Olympics Minnesota’s biggest state competition of the year. We look forward to cheering him on as he gives it his all at South View Middle School on June 17-18!

This story is presented by Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America.