Special Olympics Florida held its annual Champions’ Gala, presented by Publix, at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando. Award-winning news anchors for WESH 2 News, Jim Payne and Meredith McDonough hosted the event celebrating the organization’s 45th anniversary with a special performance by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Cheap Trick’s lead vocalist Robin Zander. Additional guests included U.S. Congresswoman Val Demings, Orange County Sherriff Jerry Demings, professional basketball player for the Orlando Magic Aaron Gordon, and more.
The evening included recognition of Special Olympics Florida’s most incredible athletes, coaches, volunteers, and community partners from across the state while raising awareness and funds for its programs which serve more than 41,000 children and adults with intellectual disabilities. Guests also had the opportunity to meet and learn more about athletes from Florida who will be competing in the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Washington, next summer.
Unified Partner of the Year – Haley Eckel
Haley started her involvement with Special Olympics Florida as a Unified partner while attending middle school in 2012. She has been a partner for bocce, bowling, basketball, and her favorite sport soccer. On the playing fields, she has not only helped many athletes to perform at their best but has also become a friend to many, helping athletes become more confident, gain skills, and enjoy the thrill of competition and victory along with handling defeat appropriately. She shows patience, compassion, and most of all desire to help others. She has participated in the MLS exchange program, representing Orlando City in a Unified soccer match against the Chicago Fire and represented Team USA at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
Coach of the Year – Carol Miller
Carol began volunteering with Special Olympics Florida in 2012 and became involved in the swimming, stand up paddle, and surfing programs. She has worked extremely hard to improve and grow the three sports programs, doubling the number of athletes in stand up paddle and establishing the brand new surfing program from scratch. She had also increased the volunteer base, held trainings to certify new coaches, and ran a strict training programs with athletes working on all aspects of the sports and practice schedules. Carol is a registered nurse and emphasizes health and nutrition with all athletes in addition to volunteering for other sports and helping fundraise.
Athlete of the Year – Thomas Shervington
Thomas does not see what he can’t do, but what he can. He says often, “Some say I have a disability. I say I have extra abilities, and because I am autistic and a Special Olympics Florida athlete, I have been able to do so many things most people will never do.” Thomas recently graduated from high school and started working at Busch Gardens. Thomas has been involved with Special Olympics Florida for seven years and currently participates in bowling and soccer. He has also competed in basketball, tennis, bocce, golf, and softball in previous years. Special Olympics has helped Thomas become an outgoing, athletic individual and helped him find friends, a community, and a place to belong. Thomas is now an advocate for Special Olympics Florida and gives numerous speeches and recruits other athletes participate in sports and become Athlete Leaders.
Hall of Fame Inductee – Andy Miyares
Andy is a world record holder and outstanding Special Olympics Florida athlete. His skills as a swimmer for more than 25 years have shown how Special Olympics athletes can shine far beyond what anyone could imagine. Andy is a Global Messenger for Special Olympics in addition to being a coach and mentor. He has helped pioneer open water swim for Special Olympics and regularly competes in races.
Florida’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver Award – P&G
Since 1980, P&G has raised charitable contributions exceeding $40 million nationwide for Special Olympics through their partnership with Publix Super Markets. P&G donates portions of redeemed coupons in their brandSAVER® and offers special coupons during the Special Olympics campaign at Publix Super Markets each January. Additionally, P&G supports Special Olympics Unified Sports through several initiatives including Play Unified sports camps with professional athletes, Special Olympics athletes, and Unified partners. P&G employees also regularly volunteer at Special Olympics Florida sporting events.