“We’re kind of those ‘all in’ type of people,” says Kristin Nelson, Special Olympics Minnesota coach and Head of Delegation from Delano.  

Instead of easing into volunteer roles with Special Olympics Minnesota, Kristin and her husband, Dale, were leaders from the start. They formed the West End White Caps in 2012—the first Special Olympics Minnesota swim team in the area. 

Kristin and Dale learned of the need for a Special Olympics team in Delano from a member at My Body Shop Fitness Center, the gym they own and manage. “We had a family join our gym that wanted to train for a marathon together and they would bring their son, who has autism, along,” says Kristin. “He would wait for his parents in my office, and it was fascinating to see how he viewed the world around him.”  

The son was a skilled swimmer and even competed on his school team, but according to his parents, he was struggling. “It wasn’t that he couldn’t keep up physically, but the other aspects of being on a team were hard for him,” says Kristin. His father knew that Kristin and Dale competed in triathlons, and he was impressed by their motivating personalities. One day, he asked if they would consider coaching a Special Olympics team.  

“My first thought was that I could not possibly have any value, or the patience, or quite honestly the personality for this role,” recalls Dale.  “I feared that I would unwillingly do or say the wrong thing and that my intensity and passion might be way too much for this group.” 

He remembers Kristin handing him a coaching guide and optimistically saying, “Let’s just give it a go.”  

As he read through the guide, Dale was struck by the competitive nature of Special Olympics. He realized his personality could be an asset to the program because he loves to help athletes excel and improve in their sports and in life.  

Kristin kept encouraging her husband, and since that initial hesitation, Dale has never looked back. “I could tell a hundred stories of how my life has changed for the better by being a Special Olympics coach,” says Dale.  “To be a part of someone succeeding after hours and hours of work, witnessing that moment they break through and lock down a technique, finish a full length of the pool without stopping, or winning their first medal. These moments actually make me emotional. Sometimes you can’t help but tear up with joy.” 

Many coaches have a personal connection to Special Olympics, whether it’s having a family member on the team or a child with disabilities. “Parents always ask us ‘Which one’s your kid?’ And we say, ‘None of them, all of them…both,” says Kristin. She and Dale saw coaching as an opportunity to support parents and families in their community and serve as a positive influence in their athletes’ lives. “I can’t imagine how full the plate must be for parents of children with disabilities. To add coaching a team is a lot of work. We’re happy to help!”

The Nelsons assure parents and caregivers that while athletes are at practice they can relax and know that their son or daughter is learning valuable skills in and out of the water. “We sing Kristin and Dale’s praises everywhere we go,” says Carol Anderson, mother of 38-year-old Eric Anderson who has been coached by the Nelsons since 2013. “They have built a wonderful, positive sense of confidence in our son and we are very, very grateful. The two of them have developed an amazing program in Delano.” 

Kristin says many parents have doubts when they drop their athlete off for that first practice. However, it doesn’t take long before parents are in disbelief over how far they have advanced in confidence and their ability to compete. “Every year, one of our families shows us a video of an athlete at their first practice and say ‘We really didn’t think you could do it!’” That surprise from parents and the dedication from Special Olympics Minnesota athletes is a major part of what drives Dale and Kristin to keep growing their delegation. 

“Through all these years competing, it’s been Kristin and Dale’s positive attitudes that have helped Eric succeed and become a better person and community member,” says Carol. After he gained confidence in swimming, Eric added basketball, floor hockey, softball, bowling and bocce to his sporting lineup. He has worked at Coborn’s grocery store in Delano for 22 years, where Kristin and Dale visit him during his shifts. “They’ve just been so good with him that it’s hard to put into words,” says Carol.  

Over the years, the Nelsons have encouraged others to try coaching, and they hope more people get involved as the 2026 Special Olympics USA Games approach. “I think coaching can work for anyone,” says Kristin. “It’s really different depending on the sport. With a water sport and the safety concerns that come along with that, you have to be someone who is very observant. But sports like bocce ball are great starting points. These families are just so happy to have someone with the willingness to try.” 

One of Kristin and Dale’s favorite memories is a special moment for the family of an eight-year-old girl named Presley who was always hesitant to get into the water at practices and competitions. “Once she would get in, you could tell she was going to be a really skilled swimmer. The issue was getting her in the water,” says Kristin. At her first meet, her coaches and parents wondered if she would be able to do it. “I’ll never forget that do-or-die moment when her heat was ready to swim, and she would not get into the water,” remembers Dale. “After several minutes of trying to negotiate, leverage and bribe, Presley was not going for it. I looked up into the stands to find her parents and gain their approval as I held her over the water and was about to drop her in. I thought to myself, ‘What will all these people think of me if I toss this girl into the pool?’  Then with no time to consider any other options, I let her go!” 

After dropping to the bottom and resurfacing, Presley lined up for her 25-meter freestyle and shot off from the pool wall with more determination than ever. Dale remembers watching her and thinking “Oh my god she is going to win!” With Kristin on the other end of the pool cheering her on, Presley finished in first place with her best time to date.   

“The look on Presley’s face, the tears in her parents’ eyes and the enormous hugs we received after she ran to me and Kristin when she got out of the pool had us lost in the moment,” says Dale.  

“All of us were beaming with pride and joy for Presley. It doesn’t get any better than that,” says Kristin.

Dale says he could tell hundreds of stories like Presley’s. “What is still amazing to me is that they just keep coming and it never gets old,” says Dale.  

The determination and work ethic that Kristin and Dale instill in their athletes is evident in the way the couple approaches life. They met soon after Dale returned from serving in the military when Kristin was 20 and he was 22. Now they’re celebrating 37 years of marriage this June.  

The Nelsons have two children who inspired Kristin to make a career change after she worked in the medical industry for most of her life. “Our family started to do taekwondo together in our town, and as black belts we were required to teach and coach, so that was what reawakened my love of fitness,” says Kristin. All four Nelsons are second degree black belts and have competed on the national stage. It was during those years of competition when Kristin decided to go back to school for personal training. “It was hard to be behind the eight ball working in the medical field. It’s way more fun to be in front of it with fitness.”  

The couple dreamed of creating a gym that was welcoming to everyone in their community. They found a building for rent in Delano and opened their business in the fall of 2010. Today it serves as an inclusive space for people of all ages and all abilities. Anyone who walks in the door is considered family. “Doing something that makes everybody feel good is its own reward,” says Kristin. 

The Nelsons offer the gym for Special Olympics athletes to train and work out with their Unified partners. Athletes lift weights, play bocce in a patch of grass outside, do yoga and hang out with volunteers. Kristin believes the Unified movement has made a massive difference for their swim program. “Our Unified partners are younger athletes that can impact our athletes in a way that Dale and I can’t,” says Kristin. “They want to learn from their peers and to be treated equally in the water by their peers. It’s a blessing to watch.”  

Kaia Georges is on the varsity swim team for Delano High School and competes with the Aquajets, a club team based in Eden Prairie. She has served as a Unified partner for Kristin and Dale’s team since 2023. “We can coach and watch athletes from in the water and work with them one on one. It’s super inspiring and it makes me want to work with Special Olympics more once I graduate,” says Kaia. 

As a Head of Delegation and a coach, Kristin hopes for Unified partners like Kaia to build connections with athletes and be a presence in their lives for the long haul.  

Kristin believes the 2026 USA Games in Minnesota will help spread excitement and engagement with Special Olympics Minnesota for every generation of athletes and volunteers. “It’s such an opportunity for Minnesota to see what’s out there. People want to be a part of something important, but they don’t know unless people talk about it and invite them,” says Kristin.  

The Nelsons will undoubtedly serve as cheerleaders during the Games; they are already incredible advocates for Special Olympics Minnesota throughout the year. “We live in this little community where we know how great it is, but we want everyone to talk about it. It’s insanely fun!” says Kristin. “Interacting with athletes and being in community with them is just the best.”