While athletes are at the heart of our organization, our volunteers are its backbone. That’s why each year at State Summer and State Fall Games, Special Olympics Florida honors the coaches who have inspired others to reveal their inner champions. Called the Inspirational Athlete & Coach award, it is a chance to celebrate the dedication and passion that our volunteer coaches bring to Special Olympics Florida.
Coach Lois Simpson-Leino from Manatee County
Lois Simpson-Leino began participating in Special Olympics Florida in February 2013 after researching online and deciding that it was a great way to share her love of sports, especially volleyball, swimming and basketball, with others. The people she has met along the way have been Lois’ favorite part of coaching with Special Olympics Florida. As she puts it, “Every moment with Special Olympics has been full of laughter and excitement. Win or lose, every athlete and coach knows that as long as we tried our best and had fun, that is all that matters.” Lois even recently started learning sign language in order to communicate with one of her hearing-impaired athletes.
This year was her second visit to State Summer Games and she thinks that words cannot fully describe her experiences. From the bus ride to Orlando and her team playing their first game, to the Opening Ceremonies, fireworks and finally the trip back home – she explains that the weekend’s events seem surreal.
Lois’s favorite Special Olympics memory is also a warm reminder of the reason why many people participate. Recalling a time when she and her team were discussing why they chose to compete in Special Olympics, one of her most quiet athletes, with a large smile on his face, simply responded, “Because it’s fun!” A look inside of Lois’s commitment to her team is a great example of why she was chosen to represent Manatee County as Inspirational Coach.
Coach Phyllis Crain from Pasco County
Phyllis began participating in Special Olympics earlier this year while working with high school students. She was inspired by a friend and co-worker, Vicky King, who is in charge of the Special Olympics Florida program at their high school. Phyllis decided that she wanted to help too and today has a number of sports under her belt, including softball skills, basketball skills, bowling and soccer. As Phyllis explains, Special Olympics is “pure joy from the athletes. Special Olympics reminds me of what sports are all about and I love how the athletes are treated with respect.” This was Phyllis’ first time attending State Summer Games and according to her, “the experience was amazing.” She was especially impressed with Healthy Athletes, a program dedicated to providing free health screenings and education to all Special Olympics athletes.
Phyllis has been moved by Special Olympics and shares that it has allowed her to take a step back and enjoy the simple things in life. Her most cherished memories include spending time with her athletes at the Opening Ceremonies in Champions Stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports and seeing her Unified Partners ensure that their teammates are successful on the field.
Coach Kimberly Martinez from Martin County
Coach Kimberly Martinez has been involved with Special Olympics for the last nine years. While she is currently a bowling coach, Kimberly has obtained coaching certification in almost every sport offered by the organization. Today, Kimberly is even more involved in her local program, serving as a member of the Martin County Management Team where she continues to volunteer and fundraise. She also embraces the idea of new sports as she was among the first group of people to start surfing – now one of Special Olympics Florida’s most quickly growing sports.
Special Olympics has not only changed Kimberly’s life but has also given her the opportunity to change the lives of many others. Kim revealed that her favorite memories are from a variety of incredible moments during her first trip with her athletes to State Summer Games nine years ago. Considering her decade of service to her athletes and teams, it’s no surprise that she plans on being a member of the Special Olympics family for a very long time.
Coach Kitty Burke from Sarasota County
Kitty Burke started with Special Olympics in Georgia in 1984. Her son, Patrick, had been participating in Physical Education at his school in Georgia since the age of 3 but it was not until he turned 8 and entered the Special Olympics Georgia Summer Games that Kitty became hooked. Together, the passion that Kitty and Patrick share for Special Olympics has paved the way for future coaches and athletes.
In 2001 her family moved to Sarasota, Florida and their first stop in their new town was Special Olympics, where her relationship with Special Olympics blossomed again. Kitty has been to the State Summer Games several times before and loves the experience every single time. In 2005, Kitty experienced something she said she will never forget – Patrick’s hard work and dedication was rewarded when he was recognized as the Athlete of the Year for all of Special Olympics Florida.
Kitty helps with multiple sports, but prefers spending her time in the water, coaching swimming and stand up paddle boarding – which isn’t a surprise considering the miles of beautiful coastline near her home, but as she explains, “my favorite part of Special Olympics is the people. The athletes, other coaches, and volunteers have become our friends and support.”
Coach Shari Lariviere from Lee County
For Shari Lariviere, State Summer Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports was one of the most memorable experiences she’s ever shared with her son. It was a weekend filled with firsts: the first time her family had ever attended the Statewide Summer Games, where they would cheer for her son as he competed in Bocce at the state-level for the first time ever.
Having moved to Florida in 2012 from Ontario where they were involved in many Special Olympics sports, Shari carried her enthusiasm for Special Olympics to her new home. At the end of the two-day event, Shari was seated on Champion’s Field for Closing Ceremonies waiting for her son’s award to be announced when she heard her name too. “I thought I was just sitting there with my son, because he was getting an award. Being honored with the Inspirational Coach Award was really a surprise!” she says. Now that Summer Games have ended, Shari is re-energized and excited to coach again, helping others find their passion for sports through Special Olympics.
Feeling inspired by these incredible coaches? We have a place for you! We want people who share in our spirit of acceptance, fun and determination to change the world, one life at a time. Visit our Get Involved page for ideas on how you can contribute to the Special Olympics movement.