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posted: 4/19/2013 5:36 AM

The heart of Special Olympics

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By Sherry Manschot

Meet any Special Olympics athlete and almost immediately they begin talking to you about their medals. A huge source of pride, these medals are a validation of their hard work and dedication. Of course, the bling around the neck is pretty cool in and of itself.

If you have a child with an intellectual disability you may already be aware of Special Olympics. If your child is not involved, Special Olympics may be something you want to learn more about.

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Founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968, Special Olympics is an international organization providing a variety of Olympic-type, year-round sports training and athletic competitions to children and adults with intellectual disabilities. They have programs at the local level and competitions range from the district and state levels all the way to the national and international levels. They serve nearly 4 million people in more than 200 programs in more than 170 countries. In Illinois alone, they reach more than 21,000 people.

With 19 sports offered year round, Special Olympics offers everything from basketball to ice skating. Through the training and teamwork, athletes are afforded the opportunity to learn the skills associated with their sport of choice, develop their physical fitness, and work hard to develop their personal potential. They train throughout the season and look forward to being able to compete against other teams or athletes. Programs are structured to be competitive, albeit a friendly competition.

According to Scott Swords, father of 14-year-old AJ, "The Special Olympics programs give AJ the opportunity to release his competitive juices and to learn how to become an athlete. He can compete on his level and participate in programs designed to bring out the best in him."

AJ has been involved with both track and basketball. "He loves the competition and the camaraderie of these sports. And he gets the chance to go out and be himself when he competes," adds Swords.

Special Olympics is more than just sports. Swords remembers a particularly heartwarming moment during AJ's first basketball season. "The team was at the district tournament and struggling to score more than a few baskets each game. They were a young team. Between games the families went out for lunch. As team members began coming back to get ready for the game, I noticed that the kids had gathered together and were sitting as a team." That day Sword knew that the team had bonded. Beyond that, their relationships were transitioning from teammates to friends. Swords notes that many of those friendships gained that season continue to this day.

That is really what is at the heart of the program. The skills these athletes learn go beyond the field or court.

"Athletes grow mentally, socially and spiritually, make many friends, and learn discipline and teamwork which helps them do better in school and in the community," according to Barbara De Guido, director of communications & media relations for Special Olympics.

Julie Evans has also seen her son benefit both on and off the court. Evans' 13-year-old son Miles has been participating in Special Olympics since he was 8.

"Miles benefits from the socialization and camaraderie with teammates, discipline gained from participating in sports, pride of being part of a team, learning sports skills, and living a healthy lifestyle."

A few years ago, Special Olympics created a program specifically for children ages 2 through 7 with intellectual disabilities. The Young Athletes program was designed to introduce young children to the world of sports through fun and play. It also helps them develop skills that will enhance their Special Olympics experience when they turn 8 years old. One unique aspect to this program is that siblings or friends without disabilities are also allowed to join the program. Young Athletes has seen more than 13,000 children both with and without intellectual disabilities go through it.

To be eligible to participate in Special Olympics, a person must be at least 8 years old with a primary diagnosis of an intellectual disability, a cognitive delay, or a significant learning or vocational problem due to a cognitive delay. There may be physical disabilities present, but it is not the primary diagnosis for eligibility.

To learn more about Special Olympics and how to participate in your area, visit their website at soill.org.

• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at sherrym@wdsra.com. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.

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