Special Olympics athletes take center stage
June 9, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash., June 10, 2011 -- It’s easy to love the thrill of good competition. It’s perhaps just as easy to forget that winning doesn’t always mean getting the most points or being first across the finish line.
For the more than 2,500 athletes, coaches, supporters and volunteers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., last weekend, the upsides went beyond getting any gold.
With the largest field of competitors since it began in 1968, the Special Olympics Washington Summer Games provided healthy competition while building confidence and community.
“This weekend is going to be hooah for you,” JBLM Garrison Commander Lt. Col. Thomas Brittain told participants at opening ceremonies June 3, 2011.
The Special Olympics were founded 53 years ago to empower adults and children with intellectual disabilities through sport. Though they make up the largest disability group in the world, those with intellectual difficulties are often isolated and overlooked.
At the Special Olympics, they experience the opposite. The overlooked find themselves at the center of attention, each with a moment to shine.
Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base have been helping with this mission since the 1970s, hosting the Summer Games each year. Now in the first year of organizing events as a joint base, JBLM provided a venue for participants ages 8 to 82 to show just what they were capable of.
The families of 11 special needs athletes from JBLM can vouch for the positive changes the program brings. The members of the JBLM Tigers finished the weekend with a total of 21 medals and 10 ribbons, not to mention the accompanying benefits.
“You can actually see that they’re happy, and they feel more part of the community,” said Staff Sgt. Toni Ellis, 42nd Military Police Brigade.
Her son, William, 17, has been involved in athletic competitions for about four years. William has autism, scoliosis, ADHD and a mobile developmental delay, but events like the softball throw and assisted walking have helped him get out of his shell.
“Socially it’s helped him a lot,” Ellis said.
A student at Lakes High School in Lakewood, William is now much more comfortable in crowds. He recognizes friends he’s made at competitions from year to year, can ride public transportation with assistance and has a part-time job at the YMCA.
In short, athletics have helped him attain a level of independence and community engagement that would have been difficult before.
This is a point of pride for the Special Olympics program. In fact, about half of Southern Washington, or SOWA, adult athletes have jobs, according to SOWA Vice President of Sports John Borgognoni, more than the national average.
Nine SOWA athletes will even have the opportunity to travel all the way to Greece for the world games this summer. For Mallory Smith, 22, of Tacoma, Wash., it’s the chance of a lifetime.
Smith’s parents, Jim and Debbie, never anticipated that she would be diagnosed with Down Syndrome, but it hasn’t stopped her from trying new things and focusing on what she wants to achieve. She trains every day, often practicing on a bike trainer in the garage.
Now Mallory will be cycling in front of the world later this summer, showing off just one of the many sports she’s mastered. Still, she knows medals aren’t everything.
“I might get to be a winner, because I can be a winner and a team player,” she said.
It’s a message that sticks with a lot of Special Olympics athletes -- not to mention the outside community.
“I think for the people who get involved and volunteer, they’re changed a bit and impressed by the sportsmanship that they see and the dedication and just the heart that these athletes display,” said Master Sgt. David W. Gross, assistant coach of the JBLM Special Olympics team with 555th Engineer Brigade.