Written by: Lance Shearer, Daily News correspondent
An awards ceremony was held March 16, at Golden Gate High School during a Special Olympics Florida event in which Collier was host to four other counties.
(Photo: Morgan Hornsby/Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA)
More than 250 Special Olympics athletes from five Southwest Florida counties came together for area games held at Golden Gate High School. Accompanied by escorts from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, one athlete from each county — Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee — carried a symbolic torch around the track as the opening ceremony kicked off the event.
The Special Olympics athletes, youths and adults with intellectual disabilities joined in reciting the Special Olympics athlete’s oath: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
These athletes were focused on winning, not on disabilities.
At one end of the football field, athletes competed in the long jump. They raced down the track toward the sandpit, giving it their all. For some, that resulted in an impressive leap before touching down, while others gave a hop or simply continued running. Volunteers cheered each athlete equally, while others raked out the sand after each run.
At the high school’s tennis complex, there was action on all six courts. On some, athletes played games of mixed doubles along with Unified partners (people without intellectual disabilities), with equivalent skills who joined in.
Athlete Ian, 13, paired up with Unified partner Gigi Bueno, 11. Leaning close to a reporter’s ear, Ian confided in a loud whisper, “She’s really bad.” But she helped Ian.
Others did practice drills. Coach Blair Jefferson, a Lely High School physical education teacher, worked with a group.
“Okay, we’re going to do ups with a bounce,” she told them. “The teacher in me wants to model it,” so she did, before having each athlete do the exercise, building eye-hand coordination and racquet skills.
“Can I brag on my team a little bit?” said Collier County coach Kendall Rizzo. “Tennis is a hard sport, and they work really hard. I’ve been practicing two times a week with them for five years.”
On the football field, small teams played spirited games of soccer with diminutive goals, while on the far side of the school, cyclists circled the bus loop on two- and three-wheeled bicycles.
While the calendar says we have a few more days of winter left, it felt like summer, with a sunny sky and temperatures in the 80s, and athletes and coaches were reminded to stay hydrated and apply sunscreen.
Those who finished atop their event will have the chance to compete at the Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games in Orlando in May. Award ceremonies, complete with a three-tiered podium, awarded blue, red and yellow ribbons.
In a shady area behind the football stands, volunteers conducted physical therapy and dental health screenings.
“A lot of people don’t realize, but Special Olympics is the largest healthcare provider globally for people with intellectual disabilities,” said David Cato. “No parent or caregiver pays a dime.”
An administrator for Lee Health, Cato volunteers for Special Olympics Florida as a clinical director for Healthy Athletes FUNfitness. The volunteer staff recommends individual fitness regimens for the athletes, assesses them according to standardized measures, and refers them when appropriate to other medical providers.
Justin Copertino, Special Olympics Florida county director for Lee and Collier, said the program provides tremendous benefits to the athletes.
“Often, those with intellectual disabilities don’t feel included in society,” he said. “Sports help them feel included. We’ve gotten tremendous support from the community.”
That support was on display at GGHS. A dozen sheriff deputies took the field for the opening ceremony. Next to the football field, helicopters from CCSO and the Collier Mosquito Control District sat on the grass, their pilots offering each athlete and escort the chance to check them out. A fire engine from the Greater Naples Fire Dept. stood in front of the field.
Coach Stephanie Dangler has been working with Special Olympics athletes for more than 10 years. She has a son, Michael, 20, who is “along the autism spectrum,” and has been participating about the same amount of time.
“Michael is fantastic,” said Dangler. “I learn from him every day.”