Paddle Power

Special Olympics celebrates 50 years

Robert Clark

For two weeks in February, activities surrounding Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, were water-cooler buzz and family dinner fodder. Under the radar, however, another sports-centric entity garners less attention but is no less significant.

Special Olympics South Carolina has statewide competitions year-round, with additional opportunities for South Carolina athletes attending national and world events. In fact this month State Summer Games take place at Fort Jackson for Special Olympics SC, and a delegation of Special Olympics SC athletes, unified partners, and coaches attends Special Olympics USA Games June 30 through July 7 in Seattle, Washington. All total, Special Olympics SC has 17 competitive events (and more than 400 competitions annually) on its 2018 calendar.

Although Olympic Games date back to ancient Greece, the Special Olympics is a bit younger. In fact, the organization celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. While the Special Olympics fails to receive the hype and attention that Winter and Summer Olympic Games do, it is — as its name implies — a special experience for thousands of athletes around the globe.

Today, in fact, there are 5.7 million athletes representing 172 countries who are involved in Special Olympics, with 28,902 athletes in South Carolina alone. Close to 1,500 Special Olympics SC athletes vied for medals in this past year’s state summer games.

Despite this heavy international involvement and activity, most Americans have misconceptions or limited knowledge about Special Olympics, points out Special Olympics SC director of communications Leigh Lowery. “Oh, they’re cute kids just having fun, many think, but a lot of folks don’t understand the level of commitment. These are true athletes.”

Athletes, ages 8 and up, transition from participant to athlete status and devote time to training a minimum of eight weeks prior to every competition. All athletes have an intellectual disability, such as autism or Down Syndrome. However, careful consideration is given to verbiage used to identify athletes. The Special Olympics language guidelines state: “Words matter. Words can open doors to cultivate the understanding and respect that enable people with disabilities to lead fuller, more independent lives. Words can also create barriers or stereotypes that are not only demeaning to people with disabilities, but also rob them of their individuality.” One appropriate term is “Special Olympics athletes” versus Special Olympians. The less focus on the disability and the more attention to the athlete, the better, points out Leigh.

A few years ago, they added the opportunity for individuals with and without intellectual disabilities to play together on sports teams, such as basketball. Leigh explains that these “unified partners” are often recruited through school programs. Plus, Young Athletes® offers sports development for children ages 2 to 7.

“We are ‘real’ sports,” asserts Leigh.

She enjoys lauding the achievements of a power lifter in Rock Hill who bench pressed 501 pounds at state summer games. People who witnessed his strength were amazed. “He’s the nicest guy, and I don’t know what his diagnosis is. We don’t focus on that but rather on the athlete and his or her abilities.”

Leigh also shares the accolades of a golfer from Clover who finished with a low score of 66 at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles in 2015. “He’s playing like a serious professional golfer and even set a record at those games.”

A year ago, three athletes who were all from the Florence area and train regularly in Western North Carolina, qualified to compete in the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. One was a snow boarder and the other two alpine skiers. All three came home with Olympic medals.

A Lexington team of four stand up paddleboarders, a new sport added to Special Olympics, qualified for the USA Games this summer in Seattle. South Carolina added SUP four years ago. At the time South Carolina and Florida were the only two state programs to offer the sport. Since then, it has gained popularity among state programs and will be offered as a demo at the 2018 USA Games.

The SUP team is coached by Rachel Maxwell; she became involved through Tia Gamelin, who started the Lexington-based SUP team. “She knew that my husband and I enjoyed the sport and invited us to help coach the team,” says Rachel. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and two years ago I took over as the head coach of the team when Tia and her family moved out of South Carolina.”

All in all, 167 Special Olympics SC athletes, unified partners, and coaches will attend USA Games. Delegation members compete at no cost to them so they are encouraged to fundraise for additional competition opportunities. To help cover costs for USA Games, each delegation member is being asked to raise $1,200. This helps to cover the delegation’s travel costs for the week-long event.

Rachel says the SUP athletes whom she is lucky to be traveling with to Seattle are Cameron Miller, Kenneth Manigo, Maddie Haag, and Kaitlin Lawrenz. She shares, “As a coach, I have fallen in love with the Special Olympics community. It’s a joy to work with these athletes who show love, enthusiasm, and motivation in all that we do. We’ve got a lovely group of athletes on our SUP team, and our volunteer coaches are truly amazing. We have an incredibly talented collection of coaches with backgrounds in physical therapy, occupational therapy, personal training, neuroscience as well as experts in water sports and talented SUP competitors.”

Kenneth Manigo says he will be right there with his son, Kenneth, Jr., “Kenny,” at the Seattle games. Kenny, 29, who began training as a stand up paddleboarder in 2013, looks forward to traveling to Seattle and changing his watch to Pacific time. “As a special needs parent, my reward is watching him do what he loves — to keep him involved in activities that benefit his health. It also turns out to be great father and son time, even though I don’t paddle board.”

Kenny is sponsored by the Lake Murray SUP Club, and Kenneth acknowledges that Kenny would not be successful as a Special Olympics SC athlete if not for the commitment of sponsors, volunteers, coaches, and Special Olympics SC state staff.

Leigh says that the USA Games are a big deal for Special Olympics SC. “Our athletes and coaches will have once-in-a-lifetime experiences as they see the culmination of their hard work and training.”

Team South Carolina will participate with 4,000 athletes, each competing in one of 14 different sports over the duration of one week. The University of Washington, Seattle University, Seattle Pacific University, and various bowling lanes and golf courses will host the competitions. “Athletes will compete against themselves and their goals, but also against athletes from all over the country,” shares Leigh. Specifically, Team South Carolina is competing in 11 of the 14 sports offered: aquatics, basketball, bocce, bowling, flag football, golf, gymnastics, power lifting, soccer, stand up paddleboard, and tennis.

Next year, the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games are in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. “Special Olympics has truly become a social, global, and health movement,” says Leigh. “Many just do not have any idea what all we do.”

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, founded the Special Olympics. She felt that people with intellectual disabilities were treated unfairly. She held a summer camp for young people with the aim of allowing them to play and enjoy sports activities. It became the foundation for the Special Olympics.

The first organized International Special Olympics Summer games were held at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1968 with 1,000 participants with intellectual disabilities competing and representing 26 states and Canada. It was the first year as well that Special Olympics SC hosted State Summer Games at Fort Jackson. By 1971, the U.S. Olympic Committee voted to give Special Olympics official approval as authorized to use the name Olympics. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan awarded Mrs. Shriver the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with Special Olympics. In 2014, ESPN announced a global programming deal to bring coverage of Special Olympics to world television viewers. “ESPN’s coverage has been unprecedented and lent some much needed credibility to the Special Olympic Games,” says Leigh. She expects televised coverage of the USA Games this summer in Seattle as well.

In the past 50 years, the international and state organization, its reputation, and participation have grown exponentially. “Special Olympics is more than just a sports organization,” says Barry S. Coats, 30 years with Special Olympics SC, its current president and CEO, and father of a Special Olympics SC athlete.

In order to handle the logistics of so many competitive events, Special Olympics SC is divided into 16 different regions, with Area 7 consisting of Fairfield, Kershaw, Richland, and Lexington counties. Each area has a designated volunteer director. Athletes participate in area competitions in order to qualify for state level competitions. Because the Special Olympics SC staff, based in Irmo, is relatively small at just 16 full-time employees, Leigh says volunteers are especially key in all of the 16 areas around the state.

No entity is more essential, however, than the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics, which is the largest source of funding for the state program. Participating agencies organize, host, and participate in Polar Plunges during winter months, partner with local restaurants to wait tables for Tip a Cop nights, and hang out on the roofs of Chick-Fil-A and Krispy Kreme locations for Cops on the Coop and Cops at the Top of the Doughnut Shop events.

Leigh says, “Officers raised more than $972,000 last year. We got so close to a million dollars. Every bit — 100 percent — of what the Law Enforcement Torch Run raises goes toward our athletes’ training, housing, meals, and more. They come up with cool, new ideas for ways to make fundraising fun and successful. Many of those in law enforcement end up volunteering in other ways, and some even become coaches.”

At this past year’s Cops & Lobster three-day event in Columbia, Sheriff Leon Lott donned a lobster hat and another officer dressed up in a lobster suit. “Some of the officers say they get more out of being involved in Special Olympics than they imagine the athletes do!” says Leigh. “Many bonds have been created at the competitions. They’re just all such terrific men and women, and we appreciate them so much! The fact that they put their lives on the line every day, but then are willing to spend their off time doing this …”

In addition to fundraising, participating officers organize the Final Leg Torch Run, where they carry a torch called “The Flame of Hope” into the opening ceremony of both Summer and Fall State Games. The Flame of Hope is then used to light the Special Olympics cauldron.

Before the USA Games open in Seattle, law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes from around the United States will run across the Pacific coast of Washington state with the iconic torch in hand.