Written by: Emmett Hall, Sun Sentinel Correspondent
Special Olympics athlete Lee Scharf struck gold at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Scharf won the 1500-meter ocean swim.
Pompano Beach hometown hero Lee Scharf continues to wrack up impressive athletic feats on the biggest of stages. The indomitable spirit of the athlete was on full display at the recent Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi, where the 41-year-old came away with the gold in the open water 1500-meter swim.
The city of Pompano Beach acknowledged his achievement with Mayor Rex Hardin proclaiming Lee Scharf Day. Pompano has embraced Lee by having him serve as the Grand Marshal at the Yuletide Parade and presenting him with a key to the city.
Scharf was part of a delegation that included 7,500 athletes, 3,000 coaches, 20,000 volunteers and 500,000 spectators from 190 countries. The United States sent over 300 athletes, Unified partners, coaches and support staff. There were 24 sports on full display.
Michele Carmichael was one of the U.S. coaches and is a big fan of Scharf. “Lee is the best, and we could always count on a smile and a warm greeting from him,” Carmichael said. “My day always started off with a hug and smile from him. He is a quiet young man who says more with his smile and glistening eyes than most of us say all day with words. He is a dedicated athlete and a wonderful and supportive teammate. Lee represented the USA proudly and it was an honor to be one of his coaches.”
Scharf is no stranger to the winner’s circle, having won hundreds of gold medals over the years in multiple sports. He was earnest in his pursuit of the gold, training five times a week with the Pompano Beach Piranhas. Before his three-week adventure to the World Games he prepared for the 1500-meter open water swim and 800-meter freestyle in the pool by competing in the Miami Mile, Fort Lauderdale Mile, Miami Beach Mile, Flowers Seas Swim in the Cayman Islands, Power Challenge in Pompano and the open water swim from Nevis to St. Kitts.
In the open water swim event at La Mer Beach in Dubai, the Pompano native had to contend with unaccustomed water temperatures of 65 degrees by wearing a wet suit. After taking the gold in the 1500-meter event, Scharf took sixth place in the 800-meter freestyle.
Pompano Piranhas Head Coach Jesse Vassallo is a former multi world record holder and USA Olympic swimmer. He has worked with Scharf since he took over the program in 2011 and can testify to his remarkable character.
“After working at Publix, Lee shows up every day and does everything we ask him to do,” Vassallo said. “He has seen different generations come and go, and when they come back to visit from college or a decade later they greet their former teammate and he knows them all. Lee is really a big part of the team and we are very happy to have him here.”
Scharf has many fans in Broward County who follow his exploits. Some of his biggest fans are his Piranhas teammates. “The younger swimmers really learn a lot from Lee and it’s important that they share some time with him,” Vassallo said. “They learn a lot about acceptance and inclusion and this has been a great education that is good for everybody. Lee’s mom is an incredible lady who has been supporting and leading him and the other athletes. It has been an exciting and a remarkable thing to see.”
Coming back to the pool deck at the Pompano Aquatic Center, Scharf received a conquering heroes welcome. “Lee has been winning for a while now, competes with everyone and isn’t shy about competition,” Vassallo said. “He is special and always has a home here. The one thing about Lee is he never gives up.”