Special Olympics lessons, benefits go beyond sports
Like many young adults, 27-year-old Becky Smith doesn't like to get up early in the morning. Except, that is, on Sundays in January and February, when she's awake at the crack of dawn so her parents can take her to the bus that carries her and her Special Olympics teammates to Snoqualmie Summit Central ski area for the day. There, with me and other volunteer coaches, Becky and her teammates train and practice their racing skills.
I've coached Becky in downhill skiing for five years, but Special Olympics has played an important role in her life since she was about 10 years old -- not just for skiing, but also gymnastics, track and field, bowling and T-ball. Her mother, Kate, says, "Special Olympics is a great way to make connections and to give structure to Becky's activities. And the fact that it's actual competition makes it even more meaningful."
Since childhood, Special Olympics has also been a social outlet for Becky, a place where she can meet friends and participate in group activities. (Because Becky is shy, her family asked me to use pseudonyms for them in this article.)
That social piece is fully evident during our program's bus ride to Summit Central each week. Despite the movie playing on the bus's monitors and the "stay-in-your-seat" rule, the athletes talk, laugh, hug and chat throughout the ride, as they catch up on what everyone's been doing. It's like a big mobile social hour that only ends when the bus stops in the parking lot and everyone tumbles out to carry their gear up to the lifts.
Becky is one of thousands of Washington children and adults who compete each year in Special Olympics sports (athletes must be at least 8 years old, and there is no maximum age limit). The program was founded in the 1960s to help people with intellectual disabilities such as Down syndrome become physically fit and productive members of society through sports training and competition.
Today, nearly 1.4 million people in more than 150 countries participate in the 26 sports that Special Olympics supports. Our team, the Cascade Ridge Racers, has about 25 athletes and 25 volunteer coaches. Each Sunday during the winter, the team travels to Summit Central, where we ski, socialize, laugh (and sometimes cry), and have loads of fun, just as any youth or adult sports team does.
Our season culminates in early March, when the team spends a three-day weekend at the Washington State Special Olympics Winter Games in Wenatchee. The skiing and medals awarded after each race are important, but just as important are the camaraderie of the team bus trip over, the Saturday night dance, the opportunity to see friends from other programs, and being one of the thousands of athletes together reciting the Athlete's Oath before competition begins: "Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
I got involved with the Cascade Ridge Racers about six years ago when a co-worker told me about the program. After a lifetime of skiing, I was interested in the idea of sharing my knowledge through coaching. However, I learned quickly that coaching Special Olympics is about much more than teaching how to make a wedge turn or shift your weight to the downhill ski. When I showed up in the parking lot to catch the bus that first day, one of the more emotional athletes came up to me in tears, and I spent my first 10 minutes with the program consoling him about a spilled cup of coffee.
When coaching, it often takes some imagination to figure out what's going to work best. Some athletes are in love with speed, and it takes the coach yelling "Turn!" all the way down the mountain to get them to keep a rhythm and stay under control. Becky, on the other hand, is a very controlled skier, but sometimes she gets distracted as she skis, causing her to lose her balance and fall. So early last season, I started skiing close behind her and making her turns a game by shouting out the consecutive number she made. The first run of the day, we only made it to seven before she fell. But by about the third week of the season, there was no longer any point in counting, as Becky routinely made it down without falling once.
Solomon Hutchinson, the director of the Cascade Ridge Racers, says that programs like ours "instill self-confidence in participants that they can transfer to real-world activities, including jobs." Hutchinson has seen this first hand. His sister Liz, a teammate of Becky's, has been involved with Special Olympics since high school.
Hutchinson says that once Liz started getting involved with Special Olympics and other activities for developmentally delayed young people, she "started to be more outgoing and more self-confident, and more willing to learn and get engaged with the world around her." I didn't meet Liz until she'd been participating in Special Olympics for years, but looking at her now, it's hard to imagine this bubbly, cheerful, outgoing young woman as anything but.
This positive development is common to many Special Olympics athletes. And it's so valuable because even in the Northwest, generally seen as more tolerant to developmentally delayed people than many other parts of the United States, it can be challenging for families with children who have special needs to find programs that are safe and appropriate. It can also be a challenge to discover programs that are open to adults as well, since children with special needs often participate well into adulthood.
Special Olympics is a way for families to find one another and create the communities that are so important for their children's development. "Liz has met so many friends through Special Olympics, and meeting those friends has led into even more activities beyond Special Olympics, like acting in plays and going to dances," Hutchinson notes.
Many parents also find that Special Olympics' expectations of good sportsmanship foster a maturity that helps athletes function better in their day-to-day lives. In the ski competitions, for example, everyone is guaranteed a medal or a ribbon, but almost all the athletes know the difference between a gold medal for first place and a ribbon for sixth -- or a participation medal in the case of a disqualification. (Race officials are strict about disqualifying skiers for missing gates or skiing off the course.) Dealing with the disappointment of a poor performance and bouncing back to do better next time becomes just as important as succeeding the first time.
Helping each other bounce back is even more important, and it's inspiring to see the connections that Special Olympics athletes make with one another. I cannot count the number of times I've seen a gold-medal winner spending time cheering up another skier, even a member of another team, who was disqualified from a race. It's not hard to see how the resilience and empathy that athletes learn in competition can carry over to daily life.
Alex Blanton lives in South Seattle and has been a Special Olympics volunteer for six years.
SKIFORALL makes outdoor activities accessible
The Special Olympics provides wonderful athletic and social opportunities for people with disabilities, but it is not the only organization fulfilling this mission. The SKIFORALL Foundation is a Bellevue-based nonprofit that improves the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities through year round outdoor recreational opportunities.
SKIFORALL's programs operate primarily in the greater Puget Sound region, with some additional outreach in eastern Washington. SKIFORALL differs from Special Olympics in that its programs do not have a competitive component. Also, while Special Olympics is designed to serve only people with intellectual disabilities, SKIFORALL also provides adaptive recreation and instruction to people with physical disabilities and sensory impairments.
SKIFORALL programs are designed to make typical Pacific Northwest outdoor activities accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, they promote independence, socialization and exposure to adaptive equipment and techniques, as well as fitness and fun.
SKIFORALL was founded in 1978 as a pilot program to teach 15 people with developmental disabilities how to downhill ski. It became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization the following year. The organization's volunteers now number more than 600 and participants more than 1,700.
While best known for its winter season instruction in sports like downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, SKIFORALL programs have expanded over the years to include cycling, hiking, camping, river rafting, canoeing and kayaking, rock climbing and in-line skating.
For more information about SKIFORALL, including how to get involved as a participant or volunteer, contact program director Randee Young at 425-462-0978, Ext. 209.
2005 Summer Camp Directory for children with special needs
Looking for a summer camp that specializes in children who have special health care needs or disabilities? Visit the Center for Children with Special Needs Summer Camp Directory. This free directory, which lists over 75 camps and programs in Washington state, was produced with support from the Washington State Department of Health and is affiliated with Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center.
Special Olympics Washington
The Cascade Ridge Racers program is funded through the Life Enrichment Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit foundation supporting local programs that further and enhance the lives of King County residents with special needs.
Originally published in the March, 2005 print edition of ParentMap.