Athlete: Sarah Kovacs has earned a reputation on the track.

A local runner has sprinted past health hardships to become a runner and even a perennial Special Olympian.

Sarah Kovacs, a Santa Monica resident and former Samohi student, just returned from the Special Olympics Summer World Games in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where she represented USA in track and field.

With the help of her coach/trainer father and Samohi’s former track coach Patrick Cady, Sarah won a gold medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay, and a silver medal in the 800-meter run and placed 6th in the 1500-meter run.

“It was an incredible experience,” Thomas Kovacs said. “Sarah was so lucky to be selected; she participated in the USA Games last July and was on an alternate list. She got the call in October and she was on the team.”

She has previously competed for Southern California at the 2014 & 2018 USA Special Olympics Summer Games in Princeton & Seattle, respectively, and won medals at each Games.

Participating and excelling in a sport that punishes her lungs is Sarah at her most triumphant.

At just 12 months old — on her birthday no less — Kovacs suffered from a severe infection in her lungs. Her lungs eventually healed during her over-a-month-long stay at UCLA Medical’s intensive care, but at some point during that stay, Kovacs didn’t receive enough oxygen to her brain. This impaired some brain function and some usage of her motor skills.

“It was just the craziest thing,” Thomas said, his voice trailing as he recalled Sarah’s hospital stay. “It was scary. At UCLA, where she was admitted, they ended up using something brand new on her to help with what had happened, it turned out to be life-saving.”

Sarah picked up a knack for running at Lincoln Middle School and furthermore at the Westside chapter of the Special Olympics, where her father became a volunteer coach. He has coached her for over 12 years now.

Under the elder Kovacs at westside Special Olympics, Sarah would run with her father under various exercise programs. Thomas says she was making progress and he wanted to see her “get faster and faster.”

At Samohi, she did just that.

Kovacs says though he was a coach and trainer who helped set Sarah up for success, it was Samohi track coach Patrick Cady that helped Sarah take her running — and social life — to the next level.

“He knew she was special needs and invited her out for cross-country and track and really accepted her for who she is,” Kovacs said. “Under his care and coaching, she really blossomed.”

The elder Kovacs says Cady was “all about inclusion well before that became a buzzword”, noting that Cady went out of his way to make sure Kovacs had opportunities to compete and meet people.

“She came to the high school in the ninth grade and she liked to run, what do you want with me,” the self-deprecating Cady said with a laugh. “ I met them and we talked. Figured Sarah would be a good fit. She eventually became a sister to everyone.”

Cady notes that the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in the U.S. state of California) had a rule that prohibited Special Olympic athletes from competing. Cady pushed to have her on the team and at meets, where she’d eventually run with the team.

“When she runs, you see the joy,” Cady says, noting how often she smiled while other students were in pain, gasping for air. “Her skill transcends any disability she has. In terms of inspiration, other kids would see that and they were inspired. Coaching Sarah was one of the great joys of my life.”

She continues to train with her dad for Special Olympic meets and other runs on the local circuit. No matter what she’s training for, you can count on Sarah to be enjoying herself and the joy that running has brought her life.

“It’s marvelous in terms of being with Sarah and seeing her accomplishments,” Thomas said. “This is the beauty of what running and the Special Olympics can do for people with disabilities. It gives them confidence. Sarah’s always smiling.”

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