Crossing the finish line is an exhilarating moment. Racing ahead of her competitors, pushing her legs and her lungs, Erykah Culbertson displays her natural athleticism and the crowd responds with their loud cheers of support. Culbertson knows the power of a positive environment, but what really drives her is one supporter in particular, her big brother, Mikey.
Culbertson has long had this extra special support. She began participating in Special Olympics in 2005, and has since trained in nine different sports.
The secret to her success?
“I just know that Mikey would do anything for me. If I’m struggling, he’s always there to help me and support me. He’s my role model,” explains Culbertson.
It’s an example that she takes to heart. Culbertson is known as an athlete leader in her local program, Special Olympics Mecklenburg County. Bringing positivity and always wearing a smile is essential for Culbertson.
“I try to give my teammates the kind of support that Mikey gives me. I want them to know what that feels like,” Culbertson says.
And her teammates have noticed. Known for her ever-present smile, Culbertson’s dad, Michael says, “People are prone to asking if she ever gets mad!”
What’s more, in 2014 Culbertson was awarded the Robb Williams Tennis Sportsmanship Award. The award recognizes talented Special Olympics athletes who put sportsmanship front and center.
“We were shocked at first, but it was awesome. It was such a surprise! Erykah’s coach kept asking if I had a camera with me, and I couldn’t understand why,” says Michael.
It all became clear when they announced the recipient.
“When they said Erykah’s name, we were shocked! Even her coach was fighting back tears!” Michael recalls.
Winning the Robb Williams Tennis Sportsmanship Award has been a highlight of her Special Olympics career, but truth be told, Culbertson knows that her next milestone will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She has been selected to compete at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi as part of Special Olympics USA!
“I’m beyond excited right now!” Culbertson exclaims. “When we got the call from Special Olympics North Carolina, we were totally ecstatic! It blew our minds!”
Through all the excitement, Culbertson is keeping her focus on her training. She will be competing in athletics in three events: the 100-meter dash, the relay race and the running long jump. Though Mikey, her personal cheering section, is away at graduate school, Erykah has an energetic training partner in her pup, Boomer, and a competitive edge in her dad. Culbertson’s dad is a Special Olympics coach, leading athletes in basketball, tennis and athletics. Having a “personal trainer” in dad will surely be key to her preparation.
“We do a lot of practicing at home and we’re starting the recommended training regimen right away,” Michael explains. “We’ll be going to the gym, getting in some mileage on the treadmill, and weight training.”
Undoubtedly, Culbertson will be well prepared when it’s time for World Games, though she anticipates that the relay will be her most challenging event.
“My favorite part of the training camp in Delaware was training with the other athletes, but now that I’m training at home it’s difficult to know how well my teammates and I will work together,” Culbertson explains.
Though her teammates are spread across the country, each following their own training plans, Culbertson has stayed in contact. They talk about their likes and dislikes, Culbertson sharing her love of animals, and just generally continuing to get to know each other. When it comes time for World Games, they’ll already be a well-bonded team.
World Games is undoubtedly the focus for Culbertson and her family of supporters over the next few months. Ever the dedicated competitor, Culbertson says, “The pressure will be on. I just really want to improve my running and do well.”
What will it be like to cross the finish line at World Games? Culbertson can’t yet say, but she knows that she’ll have loud support. Mom, dad and even her biggest fan, Mikey, are planning to make the long trek to Abu Dhabi.
“I think I might be most excited just knowing that they’ll be there cheering for me!” Culbertson imagines.
When she steps out on the track before preparing to take off from the starting line, Culbertson’s bright smile will come out in full force the minute she hears her name being chanted from her fan section. All her training and anticipation will have brought her to that moment, but now she’s ready to hear them saying her name at top of the awards podium.