Decorated kayaker Steven Dodd puts team first

LOS ANGELES -- Great Britain athlete Steven Dodd found the sport of kayaking in the unlikeliest of places: a church bathroom.

It was nearly 20 years ago when Dodd, then 21, came home and told his mother he needed to buy a kayak. He wanted to paddle it 15 miles down the River Tamar in Devon. "I didn't know he even knew what kayaking was," Pat Dodd says. "I said, 'Steven, you can't do that."

A devout churchgoer, Steven had overheard a disabled member of his church's congregation mention that the church did not have a disabled toilet. Outraged, he began scheming possible ways to raise the money to have one installed. "He told me he wanted to hold a fundraiser," Pat says. "He was going to kayak the river to raise the funds for that toilet."

Steven had never participated in sports. As a kid, he showed no interest in athletics, but Pat knew her son had a passion for fundraising and for being an ambassador for people who are less able than himself. She also knew he wouldn't take no for an answer. So she and her husband, Graham, purchased a kayak and the proper equipment to go with it. She signed him up for a 1-star qualifying course, and in no time, he had his certification and was on his way down the Tamar.

"He got loads of people involved," Pat says. "And he raised enough money to get a disabled toilet put in our church."

It wasn't the first nor would it be the last time Steven would prove he was capable of achieving seemingly impossible goals as a fundraiser and advocate. He traveled to Kosovo five times to perform Mission work with Smile International, despite having a terrible fear of flying. When he won the Young Achiever's Award for his work and was invited to meet the Queen and Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace, he used the opportunity to ask the Prince of Wales why The Prince's Trust, the largest multi-cause charity organization in the UK, didn't have a disabled team. "He told me to put together a proposal," Steven says. "And then Prince Charles gave me his card."

Two years later, Steven started the first disabled Prince's Trust team.

"If he's taught me anything, it is to keep trying," Pat says. "Go to the top of the tree, ask what's possible and work your way down from there. When he has a goal, he is unstoppable."

But while Steven, now 40, spent the next two decades ticking off incredible goals as a community servant, kayaking fell away. There were no local teams or organizations for him to join and, diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at age 24, he found it difficult to meet new people. Outside of his charity work, he spent most of his time at home in Plymouth, England, where he lives with his 10-year-old boxer, Brook. But three years ago, he heard about the Special Olympics.

"The first time he competed, I went with Steven and the coaches to Nottingham Watersports Center about 300 miles away from our home," Pat says. "Steven took part in the races, won three gold medals and qualified for the World Games in L.A. We couldn't believe it."

Since that day -- "It was exactly 799 days ago," Steven says -- he has rekindled his love for the sport, trains three times per week, and also participates in swimming and boxing to keep his upper-body strong. At the World Games, he is competing in the 200-meter and 500-meter kayak races and is a favorite for a medal. But as much as this week in Los Angeles has been about individual competition and setting new goals for himself, Great Britain coach Andrew Beynon says he is most proud of how well Steven has folded into the team.

"He lives alone and spends much of his time alone, so when we first got to L.A., he was keeping to himself, eating by himself," Beynon says. "I don't think he knew how to be part of a team. But now he's gradually coming to his teammates."

When Steven had laundry to do over the weekend, he took his laundry bag around to each of his teammates' rooms at UCLA, knocked on their doors and asked if they had clothing they needed to wash. And then he did their laundry along with his own.

"Earlier today, a television cameraman offered to give Steven the hat he was wearing, but Steven turned it down," Beynon says. "He said, 'I can't take it unless you have eight hats, one for each of my teammates. I was so proud of him. He's becoming part of the team."

On Thursday afternoon, Dodd will race his first event, the 500 meters. But, he says, medals no longer matter to him. He's had as much fun cheering on his friends and competing in a mixed-doubles demonstration event with his teammate, Katie Smith, as he ever has simply by winning a race.

"The World Games is not all about me," Steven says. "It's about the GB squad. I have the opportunity to represent Great Britain and be a member of the delegation with my friends with all different disabilities. It's about being inclusive. It doesn't matter if I win a medal. We've won by being here."