'Not much stops her'

Battle between local youth and disability is a one-sided affair

Maybe it was nervous butterflies, or perhaps the buzz of anticipation.

Either way, the feelings in the pit of Ashleigh Santistevan's stomach didn't stop her from ably and nimbly lighting the torch Saturday that signaled the beginning of the Special Olympics Colorado Western Area Summer Games.

"It was kind of both," Santi--stevan said of her pre-lighting jitters. "I'm excited they asked me to do it. It was real fun."

Not only was Santistevan, a 13-year-old Craig resident who has cerebral palsy, the recipient of a showering of applause Saturday morning, she was also the winner of two shiny gold medals in swimming.

She won gold in the 15- and 25-meter floatation events.

Lighting the torch and winning the medals capped a joyful week for Santistevan, not that she ever needs a reason to smile.

"She's always happy, she's always smiling," said her mother, Jo Anna.

On Wednesday, she got a new friend in Sidney, a friendly golden retriever who is her guide dog. The dog, which weighs 20 pounds more than Ashleigh, went to Craig Intermediate School with her Thursday and Friday.

She said her classmates swarmed around her and the new pet.

While Sidney will lend a hand to Ashleigh when he can, Ashleigh isn't someone used to needing much assistance.

"She loves to draw and sing," Jo Anna said. "She loves animals. She's rather independent. She has an 'I can' attitude. Not much stops her."

That is why organizers of the Special Olympics chose Ashleigh to bear the torch.

"She's just one of the most special, sweet little gals you ever saw," said Jim Herschberg, a member of Craig Kiwanis Club and director of Saturday's games. "She's just historically been one of the best people for us.

"I call her the local Shirley Temple. She never has anything bad to say."

Ashleigh was born three months premature. She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 9 months old and has undergone an assortment of surgeries in her 13 years.

A positive, never-say-quit attitude helps cancel out the illness, family members said.

Ashleigh has competed in the Special Olympics for five years in events such as bowling, swimming, biking and snowshoeing. She brought the same work ethic she used in preparing for those events to the torch run.

Ashleigh took her torch-lighting task seriously by practicing carrying a Coke bottle full of sand. She had to carry the 2 1/2-pound torch for a 1/4 mile Saturday.

"She practiced and worked hard on it," said Herschberg, who holds Ashleigh up as an example of overcoming adversity. "We thought she'd do great and she did."

Jo Anna said Ashleigh hasn't seen her last days with the Special Olympics.

"The Special Olympics is a neat thing for kids to do," she said. "They meet lots of friends. She loves doing it."

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