Silverdale's Ricco Morales raises expectations, spirits

Special Olympics weightlifter Ricco Morales, 26, shows off his arms with Bremerton-Kitsap Athletic Team program coordinator Barb Pool last week in Silverdale. Morales has overcome early obstacles to earn a national championship and three gold medals. - Mike Baldwin/staff photo
Special Olympics weightlifter Ricco Morales, 26, shows off his arms with Bremerton-Kitsap Athletic Team program coordinator Barb Pool last week in Silverdale. Morales has overcome early obstacles to earn a national championship and three gold medals.
— image credit: Mike Baldwin/staff photo

It’s hard to square the image of Jonathon “Ricco” Morales struggling to pick something up.

The 5-foot-4, 150-pound powerhouse, and Special Olympics weightlifter, has three national gold medals for doing just that, picking things up.

“He couldn’t pick up a penny,” said Gena Morales of her son’s physical therapy sessions when he was 4. “Now, he can lift 685 pounds combined weight.”

Ricco Morales still can’t grasp a penny. He struggles to conjure the motor skills necessary to wrap his fingers around small objects. Instead, he picks up much larger objects. And in doing so, he has realized a dream and defied early expectations of what kind of life he would lead.

Ricco Morales, 26, is a first alternate for the weightlifting team heading to the World Summer Games in Athens, Greece. He was born six weeks prematurely and sustained brain damage to the frontal lobe, resulting in delayed development of motor skills.

“When I lift the bar up, it feels like I conquered the world,” Ricco Morales said. “I guess sometimes it feels like I’m on cloud nine. Basically, it makes me feel that I’ve completed all my accomplishments. I like knowing how much I can push myself with the weights.”

From what she heard early on, his mother didn’t know what to expect.

“We were told he would never lead a normal life and that he would be lucky if he can communicate at all,” she said of the expectations early on.

Morales said her son was diagnosed at age 3, but she had long suspected something was different when he walked and developed speech later than other toddlers in their large Hispanic family.

More specifically, she was told her son would suffer from a lack of strength in his arms and legs, along with learning disabilities that could hinder any hope of living a normal life.

“We were told he could be institutionalized,” she said. “We were told he would have to live with us for the rest of our lives, and that he wouldn’t be able to count, dial a phone or drive.”

The champion weightlifter lives alone in Silverdale, working two jobs, one at Lowe’s in Bremerton and another for the Seattle Seahawks as an usher. And when he’s not pulling down 12-hour shifts at Qwest Field, Ricco Morales is lifting the barbell for Special Olympics, exceeding everyone’s expectations.

“He’s overcome a lot,” Gena Morales said. “It’s amazing he’s able to get up and publicly speak and tell his story. It’s crazy he can lift because his legs shouldn’t support him, but they do.”

For Ricco Morales, there’s nothing like the feel of raising a steel bar above his head, keeping his shoulders straight, head forward and eyes focused on his parents, Richard and Gena Morales, in the crowd.

The Special Olympian and 2003 Klahowya Secondary School graduate said he looks up to himself for turning a bleak prognosis into a triumph.

“I’m very proud, and I like it when everybody is proud of me,” he said. “I even sometimes get total strangers congratulating me about nationals. Co-workers and friends do the same as well and it feels great I’m able to achieve that.”

Ricco Morales’ proudest accomplishment in weightlifting came last July at the U.S. National Games in Lincoln, Neb., where he claimed three gold medals and one bronze en route to a national title for his weight class of 75 kilograms.

The event also marked the first time he was away from his parents, coach and trainer as the games isolated the athletes from their familiar routines to test their adaptability in unfamiliar territory.

Gena Morales could only watch, worried sick, from the stands at nationals when her son lifted on the stage alone for the first time.

“I thought he wasn’t going to be able to do this,” she said. “I didn’t want him to powerlift at first because his arms and legs aren’t that strong, but little did I know.”

Her initial doubts soon disappeared when her son raised 125 kilograms in the deadlift, 65 on the bench press and 110 in the squat for a combined 300 in the event.

Once again, Ricco Morales defied the odds.

“I was worried I was setting him up for failure, but he continues to amaze us beyond our wildest expectations,” she added.

No longer worried about her son training alone, Gena Morales has high hopes for this summer. As a result of his national medals, Ricco Morales could compete on the world’s stage this summer in Athens. He will find out in April if he will lift at the world games.

“We will go to Athens if Ricco advances,” Gena Morales said. “There’s no ‘I hope I’m going,’ we’re going if he goes.”

Having never left the continent, the Special Olympian is excited about the prospect of traveling to Europe.

“I just want to be able to say that I’ve been to Athens, Greece, and that I was there for World Games,” he said last week. “Hopefully, I’ll bring a title home.”

Weightlifting has changed Ricco Morales’ life for the better by allowing him to exceed expectations, said Bremerton-Kitsap Athletic Team program coordinator Barb Pool.

He has competed for seven years at the Special Olympics BKAT, spending the last three weightlifting.
“He’s got a whole new life for himself,” she added. “It’s done so much for him. He’s really changed who he is and developed into a whole human being.”

Pool said she’s been addressed by parents of other Special Olympics athletes inspired by Ricco Morales’ story.

His example provides a light at the end of the tunnel for those looking to do the same.

“Parents ask me if their child can be like Ricco someday, and I say absolutely,” Pool added. “It gives parents hope that their kids can blossom.”

“It doesn’t come quick,” Gena Morales added. “But it can come with persistence and encouragement and the hope they can do it. As a parent, you want him to pass it on, enjoy it now and don’t take anything for granted.”

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