Special Olympics Utah provides year-round sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Through sports, these athletes discover new strengths and abilities, develop greater skills and confidence, and experience added joy and fulfillment.
Special Olympics Utah is all about empowerment. And special events manager Haley Nall says that the organization’s mission is just as important today as it was when Special Olympics Utah began in 1971.
“We like to provide a program that doesn’t just set athletes up on like some sort of pedestal of inclusion. We want it to be true inclusion that really empowers them to be self-sustaining and self-sufficient and a little bit more independent and confident in themselves.” she says. “We really try and have actual competition in our sports, not just participation. We want it to be challenging to help the athletes grow.”
Nall describes Special Olympics Utah almost like an after school program.
“We have a lot of smaller programs within the community,” she says. “Then we have our larger competitions and fundraisers that help support our smaller programs.”
Unified Champion Schools
Special Olympics Utah also has a unified champion schools program. The unified champion schools focuses on providing three components: whole school engagement, inclusive leadership, and unified sports. Boston Lacobazzi is in charge of college growth within the unified champion schools program.
“We start with young athletes ages two through seven, which is inclusive play, so it’ll be activities like parachute games,” Lacobazzi explains. “Then we go into unified champion schools, which put students with disabilities and without together to do a whole bunch of different stuff. So that goes through elementary, middle school, high school, and college.”
In the beginning, Special Olympics Utah and the schools they worked with only offered unified sports, but Lacobazzi says that it wasn’t enough to change the atmosphere in schools. This lead them to add inclusive youth leadership where students with and without disabilities can plan events together and lead together in their schools. They also added whole school engagement, where the whole school gets involved in seeing what unification and inclusion looks like.
“When a school has those three components, you can actually see that bullying decreases and students feel more welcome at their school,” Lacobazzi says. “There’s one really cool video that Special Olympics came out with about one student who was failing every class. He was skipping school doing some not okay things while he was in high school. Then he got involved in the unified sports program at his school, and he completely flipped around and his grades went up. He was at school every day. There’s that kind of effect from unified events. But then also, just the attitude that people without disabilities have as they view people with disabilities—it’s something that they take with them through the rest of their lives.”
After college, folks can join the Special Olympics community and compete in the different events year round. Starting off the year, they have a baseball tournament and then go into their summer games with softball, track and field, and swimming. Once the summer games are wrapped up, they have a bowling tournament. For the fall games, teams play bocce ball, soccer, and golf. During the winter, they offer snowshoeing, and there are plans to expand their winter activities.
“Within the next three to five years, we’re looking to add a couple more sports and have a little bit more of a robust winter program. I think we’re also looking in our summer season, to add cycling and cheerleading, and we’re adding dance sport next year,” Nall says.
Throughout the seasons, Special Olympics Utah also includes special events scattered in between. The first is the Law Enforcement Torch Run, also known as the Guardians of Flame. Members of law enforcement and Special Olympic athletes carry the Flame of Hope torch throughout Utah and into the opening ceremonies of the summer games.
New to their special events is the Walk for Inclusion, which was hosted on August 4.
“It’s a fundraising walk—a non-competitive walk around Liberty park. The cool thing about this event is that we did a little hybrid of online and in-person, so teams could register online and start a walk team,” Nall says. “The other cool thing about this event was if you knew, a Special Olympics athlete or if you are a special Olympic athlete or parent, you can specifically fundraise for your athlete or your team. We’ve had a lot of Special Olympic teams who started walk teams to fundraise so they could get new uniforms and equipment.”
On September 9, Special Olympics Utah will host a Black & White Bocce Ball event. Participants wear black and white and compete against Special Olympic athletes and other guests in a friendly game of bocce ball. Afterward, there will be a mobile bid on silent auction items.
Later this year, they will also be hosting a series of Polar Plunge events.
“Polar Plunge is similar to the walk for inclusion, but you fundraise to jump into a freezing body of water. We encourage the teams to wear costumes. So people dress up as like superheroes, and it gets really fun,” Nall explains.
While the pandemic has caused Special Olympics Utah to have an unusual year, one good thing that has come out of it is their virtual activities.
“We’ve had events like e-sports, virtual bingo, and virtual seminars on how to stay healthy for athletes,” Lacobazzi says. “When we would have virtual bingo nights, the athletes would talk to each other, and we had a great time.”
Nall explains that the virtual events help to provide a sense of community. “I think it helps people still feel like they’re a part of the organization, even if we can’t meet up in person,” she says. “What’s cool about our program is that every one of our teams is different, and every one of our areas is different, with different focuses. So it’s cool to feel that online presence of everyone coming together and supporting each other, cheering each other on.”
At the end of the day, it all comes back to empowerment and the ability to transform lives.
“Through that empowerment, it allows athletes to know that they can take care of themselves, that they’re capable and smart,” Nall says. “They’re, just like everyone else.”
Learn more at sout.org.
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