"Here, walk by the wall, so I can protect you," Brittany Tregarthen said as we walked down a questionable alley in Kodiak, Alaska.
Full disclosure: Brittany is just over 100 pounds and doesn't even clear my armpit, but she's adamant that she's going to protect me if any harm were to befall us.
That's probably because despite her small stature, Brittany, a 28-year-old Kodiak woman with Down Syndrome, carries herself like she's seven feet tall—she did just medal at the Special Olympics World Games in powerlifting.
As far as she and her community are concerned, there's nothing she can't do. She's produced music, co-authored one book with her mother (and is working on a second) and in July, she represented Alaska at the World Games, where she added another four medals to her vast collection.
"Brittany isn't one of those people that just doesn't try things," said Suzanne Bobo, Brittany's mother. "She doesn't care if she's going to fail, she's going to try it over and over and over again. She has that confidence that someday she's going to get it."
As we walked around downtown she seemingly knew everyone (and she made sure I, in turn, knew everyone). The two servers at Henry's Great Alaskan Restaurant happened to be her bowling coaches (who she delighted in taking surreptitious photos of as they refilled her Shirley Temple), the other athletes at the gym recognized her from her picture hanging behind the squat rack (right next to a poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger), drivers on the road honked and waved as she walked down the street and her peers at the community resource center greeted her with fist bumps and group hugs.
"She's never met a stranger, really," said Jon 'Bo' Bobo, her dad. "She can walk into the airport and within five minutes she knows everybody in there. That's just the way she is."
Just one day with Brittany is enough to see she has secured the tireless support of her Kodiak community. Much of the town has pitched in to help her achieve her myriad of goals.
When Brittany wanted to write music, her pastor, Father Innocent, volunteered his time to compose the melodies. When she co-authored The Road Going, a book about her family's journey dealing with disability, chronic illnesses, relationships and the transition from childhood to adulthood, it sold out. When she was selected to compete at the World Games, a team of coaches, nutritionists, physical therapists and other supporters helped her train. And when she came home from the competition, she was welcomed back by a swarm of banner-holding supporters who filled the tiny, one-room Kodiak airport.
When Brittany and her parents moved to Kodiak in 2007, they were delighted to find a community that supported people with special needs so fully, which was something they didn't quite have in Colorado.
"Kodiak, and Alaska as a whole, really supports its people," Suzanne said. "We have much more comprehensive support here. Because there are these bonds of community here, nobody slips through the cracks. If someone wants support in this town, I tell you what, they have it."
Father Innocent, Brittany's musical partner, can attest to that, too.
"When we performed together the restaurant was packed, overflowing," he said. "Folks generally look for ways to help her. Kodiak is very, very supportive of adults and children with special needs. Don't need to promote things too much; people will just come out and show support."
Suzanne said a big reason Brittany is able to thrive in Kodiak is because the community does a good job of taking her seriously when she expresses a desire to try something new, whether that's learning how to hunt or cooking homemade jams for a farmer's market stand.
"I think people have learned that when she says she wants to do something, she really wants to do something and if you get involved, you really get involved," she said. "She will push. She has that desire and the initiative and the perseverance."
Lindsay Knight, who coached Brittany two to three days a week for the year leading up to the World Games, can speak to that, as well.
"She's pretty tenacious," Knight said. "She'll hold her bench press too long, her squats are deeper than need be. She's very dedicated. Her heart is definitely all in."
Daniel Canavan, the head of the Kodiak Special Olympics, said the town's heart is all in for its Special Olympics athletes, too.
"Kodiak is unique because the people here see Special Olympics as a serious sports program," Canavan said. "All of our athletes, no matter what league or school or sport, are given a tremendous amount of support in anything they do."
Right now Brittany is on a powerlifting hiatus—she has some issues with her feet and knees and a pinched nerve in her neck that need to be resolved before she can compete at that caliber again. For now, that means exploring the numerous other activities she enjoys. Chances are she'll bring home another medal to add to her collection. There are easily 100 plus hanging on her wall, a number that would be considerably higher if she didn't have a habit of giving them away to her many friends.
This article appeared in the February 2016 issue of 61°North, a publication of ADN's special content department. Contact 61°North editor Jamie Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org.