Champlin Olympian makes a splash as Father Hennepin parade grand marshal


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It’s not every day you get a chance to meet an Olympic athlete but that’s exactly who will be leading off the Champlin parade as grand marshal this Friday.

Champlin native Jake Sawyer, 23, represented the U.S. as part of the Special Olympics swim team that went to Greece in 2011.

Swim in the Olympics. Check. Participate in a full-length film. Check. See Les Miserables in London. Check. Volunteer regularly, raise $5,000 for charity and hold two jobs. Check, check and check.

This is what Jake Sawyer’s life has looked like for the past year. His mom calls this, "The Year of Jake."

Born with Down Syndrom, the 23-year-old Champlin native represented the U.S. as part of the Special Olympics Swim Team. His special needs tend to be merely a comma in the long list of things that make up who Jake is as a person.

"From a young age we looked for ways to keep Jake active," said his mom Pam Sawyer. He started in soccer with his sisters through Champlin’s park and recreation programs eventually moving into Special Olympics activities. For 12 years he has participated with the organization trying his hand at such sports as softball, bowling, gymnastics, golf, basketball and swimming.

Jake participated in gymnastics with Twin Cities Twisters. He played basketball and soccer with the Champlin Dayton Athletic Association, and then was a three-sport athlete for the Anoka-Hennepin adapted sports program in high school.

"I like basketball, but I like swimming too," Jake said. "I like to do my best so I get better times, and I like the friends I make."

That part has never been an issue. He works at his family’s optical business in Elk River, and at the Culvers restaurant in Champlin. In both places, he’s made plenty of friends.

He found with swimming, he has the best of both worlds, the chance to be a part of a team yet the opportunity to shine in the spotlight alone.

He helped bring home a gold medal Team USA in the 4X100 relay team and an individual bronze in the 100 individual medley. He also picked up a pair of sixth-place finishes in the 200 freestle and 100 breaststroke.

Immediately likeable and amiable, Sawyer’s family rarely treated him as a boy with special needs. There were no time restrictions put on getting home so he could watch a certain show on television, or naptime for that matter.

"I wouldn’t let Jake get comfortable," she said. "It’s been hard at times, because sometimes he needs his routine. He needs to come home, turn on his music and just veg. But I wanted him to be able to act out of his comfort zone, and I think that is a big reason why he is who he is, and why he was picked to go."

His adaptability combined with his focus also lent itself well to his stint in the full-length feature, "Lights Out," as well as work in a Best Buy commercial and an instructional video.

"He’s just a great kid," said Parks Facilities Manager Dan Masloski. "He’s come up through Champlin programs and he’s a helpful active member of this community."

Jake is looking forward to the parade, excited about getting the chance to wave at all the people that line up to watch. He loves his community where he volunteers regularly at the Champlin Library and bikes to the cinema frequently.

Jake’s determination undoubtedly contributes to all of the opportunities he has experienced. Prior to the World Games, Jake upped his training, which was evident in his performance that led to his chance to go to Greece. He has been so grateful for his experiences with Special Olympics he recently raised more than $5,000 for them by participating in the Polar Plunge.

He has been a dedicated regular with his workouts at LifeTime Fitness. He also spends a lot of time biking around town or with his mom as they venture far and wide on their wheels in search of new places to eat.

He says his mom is a big supporter and when he’s facing a challenge he remembers her advice, "Just keep going and do your best."

For Jake, his best always seems to include having a smile on his face, ready to talk about almost anything from his favorite musicals (Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera) to the movies he’s seen, recent favorites include "The Avengers" and "Hunger Games."

"Jake loves to live life out loud, literally," said Pam and that’s exactly what he’ll be doing Friday night as he parades through Champlin greeting everyone.

The parade begins at 6:30 p.m. and travels down West River Road beginning at the Douglas Avenue intersection and culminating at Chandler Park.

– Nick Clark contributed to this article.