When the 2023 Special Olympics World Games begin in Berlin on June 17, there will just be one Iowan on Team USA, Mitchell Betsworth. The 27-year-old powerlifter from Sioux City isn’t worried about the competition in Germany. He already knows what it’s like to compete at the highest levels, and he has the medals to prove it.
Betsworth, who has Down syndrome, was a gold medalist at the USA Special Olympics Games in 2014, 2018 and 2022. Weighing only 163 pounds, he recently hit a 425-pound deadlift and 300-pound bench press at a competition in Iowa City.
Betsworth has been a competitive powerlifter since his sophomore year of high school. His aide, Preston Stevens, recognized that he was built for powerlifting. Troy Betsworth, Mitchell’s father, is a former powerlifter himself, so regular training evolved organically. It’s very much a family affair for the Betsworths, with his uncle Kevin and cousin Derek also helping out as a competition gets near.
The 2023 Berlin Games will be the Betsworth family’s first time traveling abroad. Betsworth and his teammates will travel together without their guardians, while the rest of the family will cross the Atlantic to watch from the stands.
In addition to the solid support of his family, Betsworth has had a steady supply of help and support from the Sioux City Knights, an all-volunteer Special Olympics delegation composed of athletes, parents and guardians.
The Sioux City Knights currently have more than 170 athletes among its members. Before the group formed in 2012, there was no outlet post-high school for people with disabilities to compete in sports.
The Knights work with athletes with special needs from ages 8 and up, in 17 sports, providing training year-round. Mitchell Betsworth joined the Knights after high school.
“It takes an army,” his father Troy said. “We’ve met more friends through the Special Olympics than we would have ever met in any other social setting.”
“I did a lot of helping with fundraising in the first year that it started, knowing that Mitch would eventually transfer into that team,” Michele Betsworth, Mitchell’s mother, recalled.
For over a decade, Betsworth and his parents, along with a group of 15 to 30 people, participate in Siouxland’s annual Polar Plunge. This fundraising event raises critical support for Special Olympics Iowa.
The Polar Plunge is exactly what it sounds like: participants jump into a frigid body of water in the depth of winter. The annual event usually has a theme. In 2015, it was favorite bands, so Betsworth and his father dressed as Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
Since the pandemic, the Polar Plunge started using a specialized tank with chlorine for added safety, instead of jumping in a lake as they did before. Cold temperatures or not, Troy thinks that support for Special Olympics Iowa will remain steadfast.
“We could do this in July and they wouldn’t care if they know the money is going to Special Olympics Iowa,” he said.
The pandemic didn’t disrupt Betsworth’s training routine. He has an at-home setup, including a power cage for squatting to ensure safe operation. Squatting is dangerous without the cage, Michele explained. The state of Iowa doesn’t include squats in its Special Olympics powerlifting competitions for this reason.
Troy said the Knights did a “wonderful job” to help athletes keep active during the pandemic, “whether it’s shooting baskets, running around the track, doing individual things where we could practice social distancing but still keep the athletes involved.”
Last summer, four members of the Knights competed in the Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando. In total, the Sioux City Knights sent 12 athletes to Team Iowa for the competition.
For the past seven years, Betsworth has been a global messenger for the Special Olympics organization, which his mother Michele helps with. Global messengers are advocates who spread the organization’s core values.
“I help him with that because of his speech, but he does better when he has paper in front of him because it slows him down,” Michele said. Betsworth’s thicker tongue, resulting from Down syndrome, causes his speech to get jumbled.
In 2018, Betsworth was featured in Sports Illustrated’s end-of-year photo roundup. The image shows him during the deadlift competition at the Special Olympics USA Games that year. The inclusion was a total surprise to the family. John Kliegl, CEO of Special Olympics of Iowa, called them shortly after the issue came out that December. He asked whether Troy had even been in Sports Illustrated before announcing, “Well, Mitchell is!”
Mitchell Betsworth is thrilled to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s Year in Photos! What made this opportunity even better was being featured alongside @KingJames, one of Mitchell’s favorite athletes. #waslebronthrilled pic.twitter.com/Q1uIWTYPnM
— Special Olympics IA (@soiowa) December 19, 2018
In March, Mitchell was honored to read the Special Olympics oath before an Iowa Heartlanders hockey game in Coralville: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
Outside of powerlifting, he works at Pizza Ranch and enjoys swimming, bowling and golfing. When asked about how he feels about competing on the world stage, Mitchell reported that he is “so ready!”
Members of Team USA will be making their first stop at their host city, Bremen, Germany, where they will spend three to four days before departing for the World Games in Berlin. There, Mitchell Betsworth will represent the USA in powerlifting, including squat, bench press and deadlift competitions.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s June 2023 issue, Rec’d.