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Devon Zaic: Profile of a champion

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BILLINGS, Mont. - Faced with many challenges from fetal alcohol syndrome, Devin Zaic has plenty of reasons to give up.

But the 19-year-old Crow tribal member refuses to let his disabilities get him down. Instead, he's turned his misfortunes around to graduate from high school, become a star athlete in the Special Olympics program and serve as a shining example for others faced with similar backgrounds.

Devin's road hasn't been easy. Alcoholism killed his birth mother, and he was adopted by Crow Indian Reservation residents Rocky and Mary Zaic when he was 18 months old.

Birth defects made Devin's feet, legs and hips nearly unusable. He was born without tear ducts, one eardrum was malformed, and he still suffers from asthma. Surgeries, some conducted through the Shriners Hospital program, repaired some of the damage, but neurological problems continue to plague him. Reading and speaking are difficult at times, and his short-term memory sometimes can't be trusted.

"We thought he'd be lucky if he walked," Mary Zaic said.

But Devin wasn't satisfied with walking. He wanted to run. He competed with the track team at nearby Hardin High School, where he graduated in June, and played linebacker and fullback on the football team. Supportive coaches taped play instructions on his wrist so he could keep up with the action.

Over the past 11 years of involvement with Special Olympics Montana, Devin's played basketball, golfed, ran track, bowled and competed in swimming. His favorite event, however, is power weightlifting.

Devin's been an award-winning athlete for years. But when he traveled to Dublin, Ireland in June for the Special Olympics World Summer Games, his weightlifting performances earned him two gold medals and two silver medals, the top showing among the 11-member Montana delegation. As the only American Indian competitor from the state, Devin is justifiably proud.

"My goal was to bring in the gold medal," he said. "My goal in the games was to lift more than I have ever lifted before."

Devin's parents said his adrenaline must have been pumping hard in Ireland, where he was neck-to-neck with a young man from El Salvador in the finals. Devin went on to break his own top records in three categories, pushing 355 pounds in the dead lift, 345 pounds in the squat lift and 240 pounds in the bench lift.

"I can't believe that I was able to hit my goal," said Devin, who only weighs 190 pounds. "It was great."

The trip was Devin's first time overseas. He says he was excited to see all the world leaders and celebrities who attended the games, including former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, and actors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Pierce Brosnan, among many others. The group, part of about 1,000 competitors who traveled from the United States, also toured old castles, visited the Atlantic Ocean and took in other sights. Some 7,000 athletes converged on an ancient coliseum to compete in the nine days of events.

Devin says his approach to the vein-bursting sport of powerlifting is straightforward.

"I usually get myself warmed up and go lift it," he explains. He runs and swims most every day and works with weights each weekday at a gym near his home. He's already planning to compete in the 2004 World Winter Games in Japan and the 2007 World Summer Games in China.

"Special Olympics is such a great way to provide opportunities for life," said Mary Zaic, who serves as an area coordinator for the program. Her husband, a utility man for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, spends time coaching. (More detailed information about the program can be found at www.specialolympics.org)

The Zaics, who also run a historic bed and breakfast inn on the Bighorn River at Fort Smith, have two other children who are grown. Their devotion to Devin and his needs is unwavering, as evidenced by their close and loving bonds. Now that Devin is out of school, they're helping him find work so he can gain a bit more independence.

Devin, who already has a paper route, says he'd like to become a reserve officer with the BIA force on the reservation. He envisions doing crowd control at the Crow Fair and other area events. He says the last thing he wants to do "is work at a McDonald's." Devin is typically quiet and shy, as well as warm and compassionate, friends and family members observe.

"He's an amazing young man," said Vicki Dunham, Special Olympics Montana's vice president for field services. "He's maximized his potential in so many ways. He is an example of a firmly anchored young man who is totally supported by his family. He's quite an amazing success story."

While still in school, Devin was deeply involved in the local Indian Club, where he learned about Crow culture and participated in traditional dancing and drumming. In 2002, Devin was a nominee for homecoming king. It's clear that he has little trouble making friends.

But his parents, who praise Hardin school officials for providing all the help they could, say it's a different scene after graduation for families that include members with disabilities.

"You hit the real world," Mary Zaic explains. "There's not much help out there, especially in Montana and especially in rural areas. There's not a lot of choices."

Dunham, for one, has no doubt that Devin will do the best he can with whatever opportunity comes his way.

"He has amazing strength of character," she said.