Special Olympics in RI Helps Local Athletes Gain Confidence and Strength

special olympicsThe athletes filed into Town Hall Lanes in Johnston, heading to their assigned lane with their teammates. Families and friends waited patiently in the viewing area to cheer for all the athletes taking part in the Junior Special Olympics Bowling Tournament on November 3, 2013. All went silent to hear the Special Olympics oath: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in my attempt.” And then all 32 lanes were rocking and rolling with duckpin bowling action.

Special Olympics was started in the early 1960s by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who started small with a day camp for people with developmental disabilities. Seeing the fun campers had taking part in sports gave her the idea to create the First International Special Olympics Games, held on July 19 and 20, 1968, at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL. One thousand athletes from 26 different states and Canada took place in the first games. Forty-five years later, Special Olympics is still going strong both nationally and here in Rhode Island.

The sounds of the pins getting knocked down echoed throughout the hall. Happy chatter and cheering was everywhere. There was a sense of pride felt as each duckpin ball rolled down the lane. It didn’t matter whether it was a gutter ball or a strike, families and friends beamed as they encouraged all the athletes taking part in the event — not just the ones they knew. There was frustration at times, as some athletes didn’t knock down as many pins as they hoped during their turn, but that disappointment quickly disappeared as the volunteers provided high fives and higher praise.

Special Olympics Rhode Island has more than 2,800 athletes, both children and adults with various abilities. They are on regional teams throughout Rhode Island. Their mission is to “provide year round training and athletic competition in over 25 Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities and provide them with continuing opportunities to develop physical fitness skills, express courage, experience joy and participate in the sharing of gifts, skills, friendship with their families, other Special Olympic athletes and the community.”

Though there are various regional competitions throughout all four seasons, teams from all over the state (along with a few from other states) gather for the State Summer Games, which are held each year at University of Rhode Island. This may be the most inspiring weekend the state has to offer, with a surefire highlight being the opening ceremony, held on the first night of competition.

Each athlete got to bowl for two rounds. Each lane had three to four bowlers, which made up a team. The best personal score was kept and averaged with the other two or three bowlers to create the team’s score. The scores were tallied and each team won either a gold, silver or bronze medal, depending on how they did against the teams with which they were paired. While there was a small sense of competition among the bowlers, everyone there just seemed to be enjoying the company and camaraderie of everyone else. Teams were practicing for weeks, which, in addition to refining their duckpin bowling skills, gave them all a chance to get acquainted or reacquainted with their teammates.

“It’s always an amazing day when a group of our athletes come together in competition,” Special Olympics Rhode Island CEO Dennis DeJesus stated. “Whether it is flag football, basketball or bowling, our athletes come ready to compete. Special thanks to our coaches who give so much of their time, talent and energy preparing our athletes for competition.”

Special Olympic athletes are not charged fees to compete in events. Special Olympics Rhode Island, a tax-exempt non-profit company, depends on donations from generous sponsors, which include organizations, clubs and corporations. They have various fundraisers throughout the year, including a Holiday Auction on December 8 and a Penguin Plunge on January 1.

As important as fundraising is to ensure the athletes have everything they need to compete, including team uniforms, the volunteer coaches are essential to the success of the program.  The coaches range from high school students to Special Education teachers, and all are incredibly gifted at what they do. It is obvious that the coaches love every second they get to spend helping and supporting the athletes.

The athletes lined up at their lanes to hear the results and receive their medals. They waited patiently to hear how they did and smiled and they bowed their heads so a volunteer could award them with their medals. There was a real sense of accomplishment on each athlete’s face. Regardless of the color of their medal, everyone (spectators included) left Town Hall Lanes with an extra bounce in their step and an inflated sense of self-esteem.

Please visit specialolympicsri.org for further information or to make a donation.

Upcoming Special Olympic Rhode Island Competitions:

November 23, 2013: Unified Basketball Tournament, Providence College, Providence, 9 am to 3 pm

February 8, 2014: State Winter Games, Yawgoo Valley Ski Resort, Exeter

February 22, 2014: Traditional Basketball Tournament, Providence College, Providence

April 12, 2014: East Bay Area Games, Gaudet Middle School, Middletown, 10:30 am to 3:30 pm

May 3, 2014: South Area Games, Bishop Hendricken High School, Warwick, 10 am to 4 pm

May 4, 2014: Northern Area Games, Bryant College, Smithfield

May 30, June 1, June 2: State Summer Games, University of Rhode Island, Kingstown

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