Lee Countyâ€™s Special Olympics program was created to ensure that individuals with cognitive disabilities have a chance to participate in athletic events.
â€œThereâ€™s opportunities usually for everybody and itâ€™s a chance to gain physical skills, gain hand-eye coordination, learn about a new sport, gain social skills, make new friends, thereâ€™s all sorts of opportunities and benefits that Special Olympics can provide,â€ said Elizabeth Kaufman, the Lee County Special Olympics director.
There is very little that can stop a Special Olympics athlete from participating. Lee County Special Olympics has teams for a lot of sports, like track and field, swimming or bowling.
Kaufman joined the Lee County Special Olympics program three and a half years ago, and since that time the program has added both tennis and bocce ball.
Special Olympics has concessions for those who could not participate in the sports in the same way that others would. For instance, in bowling, a ramp can be used to help roll the ball for athletes in a wheelchair.
â€œWe have track and field that includes wheelchair, walking and running events so there really is something for every ability level and everybody,â€ Kaufman said. â€œAnd I think thatâ€™s really important to remember, that no matter what your ability level is, there is something you can do.â€
In addition to practices, the teams participate in three levels of competitions. Level one involves scrimmages, which are held against other local teams, Kaufman said.
Level two is local competitions, Kaufman said. These competitions qualify teams for state competitions, which are held annually.
Finally, Level three involves the teams competing at a national level, if they qualify in a state competition.
Right now, only golf and bocce ball are being offered for athletes, due to the pandemic. Both can be played outside with social distancing.
Mary Doironâ€™s son is 19.5 years old and was born with Down syndrome. Since he was a young child, heâ€™s been an athlete in Special Olympics.
â€œItâ€™s a way for my son to play a sport that he, because of the nature of Godâ€™s gift to him, that heâ€™s not able to do,â€ Doiron said. â€œHe canâ€™t do Pop Warner football, he just canâ€™t. And he canâ€™t do JV basketball or whatever. This gives him an outlet to play a sport, to be competitive and be like his cousins and his friends.â€
Doiron is involved too, as a coach for one of Lee Countyâ€™s newest sports: bocce ball.
Bocce is played within a frame and begun by throwing a ball called a Pallino and balls called bocce balls. The goal is to toss the bocce balls closest to the Pallino.
Kaufman asked if any athletes would want to play bocce and if any parents would be interested in coaching, and Doiron volunteered to take on the job. So did Jayne Haney and her husband, Patrick.
The catch: neither Doiron nor Haney had ever played bocce before. But both learned and now love the sport.
â€œIf you want to go to a sports event where you just see like really great sportsmanship and people that just really want to play a sport and just really want everyone to do well, like any Special Olympics sport,â€ Haney said.
Doiron said that there are challenges to coaching Special Olympics, such as teaching strategy, but that ultimately the goal is the same.
â€œAt the core, our kids are kids just like any other kid,â€ she said. â€œWhat makes them different is so minimal compared to what makes them the same,â€ she said.
Doiron described bocce practice as a chance for everyone to just have fun and forget about their responsibilities.
â€œItâ€™s a very easy sport to play, itâ€™s a very easy sport to learn and itâ€™s exercise, itâ€™s time outside, fresh air, itâ€™s a change of pace â€¦ itâ€™s just pure recreation,â€ she said. â€œAnd sometimes we get so focused on what weâ€™ve got to do today and whatâ€™s got to be accomplished that we forget to have fun.â€
The golf team is unified, which means that all athletes are paired with a volunteer, friend or family member to play the game with.
Steve Graham has been coaching golf for three and a half years, but heâ€™s also a player; he partners with his son.
â€œI approached Elizabeth about three years ago and said, â€˜Hey, weâ€™ve only got two teams (meaning an athlete and the unified partner). Some of the other counties have seven or eight or nine teams. Iâ€™d like to see if we can get more in Lee County.â€™ And she said, â€˜Well, would you like to coach it?â€™ And I said â€˜Sure.â€™â€
Now the county has eight plus teams of players and their partners.
Robert Crouch and his unified partner, Abbey Crowe, began playing as a team in June.
â€œIâ€™ve been involved with Special Olympics for years,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s a great program. Itâ€™s helped me in a number of ways.â€
Crouchâ€™s father ran a driving range in Montgomery and taught his son how to play golf. This is Crouchâ€™s first season as a golfer in Lee County.
â€œYou donâ€™t need to know a lot about golf to have fun out there,â€ Crowe said. â€œTrust me, I would know. And two, you might find something that you actually really enjoy.â€
The golfers practice at Mooreâ€™s Mill Country Club, which Graham said has been a huge benefit for the team.
â€œ[Mooreâ€™s Mill has] absolutely been wonderful,â€ he said. â€œIâ€™m a member out there and they have given us access to the driving range for all the kids to practice and work on Sunday afternoons.â€
Baxter Bradfield has been playing Special Olympics sports since he was a toddler, his father â€™s dad is Brad Bradfield said.
This is their second year to play golf in the Special Olympics program in Lee County.
â€œIt gives him something to focus on every week,â€ Brad said. â€œHe lives a very active life anyway. Prior to the quarantine, he was working two jobs, he goes to a day program.â€
Baxter said his favorite part of playing the game is being able to see his friends.
â€œI would encourage [athletes] to get involved because I think people sometimes have maybe not tried Special Olympics before and they arenâ€™t sure what their abilities will enable them to do,â€ Kaufman said. â€œI think itâ€™s really fun to encourage people to get involved and to watch that excitement grow as they maybe surprise themselves with what their abilities are and how those abilities can be developed and grown.â€
Photos By Robert Noles