Breaking through limitations: Area 29 Special Olympics defy the odds

Published 9:00 am Sunday, March 24, 2024

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“Let Me Win, But If I Can Not Win, Let Me Be Brave In The Attempt” – this is the athlete oath of Suffolk’s Special Olympics, which helps local children and adults with intellectual disabilities reach their potential. 

Special Olympics Area 29 continues their work of giving opportunities to individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, develop social skills and increase their self-esteem while competing in an Olympic-style sports program. Along with these benefits, the overall goal is to help bring these individuals into the larger society to be respected, accepted and become productive citizens. During the athletes’ swim training at Suffolk Family YMCA, Area 29 Area Coordinator Saul Godinez talked about how the program benefits the athletes’ self-esteem and worth.

“…Where some of them were maybe shy or introverted, guess what? They’re here with their friends. They come out here to practice and they’re going to visit with their friends. Some of them were last night doing another activity, ‘Hope and Happiness,’ some of them were at ‘Night to Shine.’ There’s so many activities and it’s their friends that they’re coming to see,” Godinez said. 

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Godinez also emphasized that the friendly competition brings out the “universal” competitive spirit that the athletes have when going for gold. Godinez reflected how his son and fellow athlete Jesus’ Godinez benefited from the program.

“My son when he was in third grade or fourth, he was just a shy little boy. You get him out there? I mean, he will run you and he’ll take over. He’ll take charge of the group,” he said. “It just does so much for all the kids, and I think that’s important and most people in the communities don’t get the opportunity to see it.”

Godinez became emotional when looking back on his son’s journey to where he is now. Area 29 Co-Area Coordinator Pat Smith reflected on seeing Jesus’ evolve with the Special Olympics, even noting her own son Ethan.

“He did karaoke at the ‘Night to Shine’ the other night. When we got him, he would hardly talk to you. When you watch them and they come together, they learn each other,” Smith said. “Ethan and Jorden went to school together, so they knew each other, but now when you come here and you watch them – they’re on the side and one other is racing – they’re hollering for whoever is racing. They are the ones encouraging them… they are the ones that are doing that for each other.”

Originally, Suffolk only had Special Olympics opportunities for students at Lakeland High School. Swim Coach Michael Clark reflected how he and his wife Amy set out to start a community-based Special Olympics program in the city back in 2003. Clark says that with much help, the program got off the ground starting with swimming and soon expanding into soccer, volleyball, golf and more.

“So we kind of took off and everything just kind of snowballed and grew and grew and grew,” Clark said. “We used to get athletes from Zuni Presbyterian Home, they would come. That kind of hurt our numbers once they closed that facility down, but so far [we’ve] still been going strong.”

Clark also talked about both the competition and training process for the swim team.

“They will be scored on individual swimming events. Freestyle breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, IMs [Individual Medley], relays, and they’re just like a normal swim meet, and how they place is the ribbons that they get,” he said. “They’ll swim every Sunday, so they’re practicing getting in shape. The skill levels are from beginner swimming and then to pretty much advanced swimming, but they’ll do timing for them to get them placed. So they’re swimming against athletes of their own ability.”

Smith says that the athletes have a local swim meet with Dare County Special Olympics in March in Outer Banks, North Carolina with a Regional swim meet in April at Old Dominion University. Area 29 will also host a local swim meet on the second Saturday in May and will participate in the State Games held in Richmond in June. The unified bowling team also will have their Nationals game in Las Vegas at the end of February.

Currently with approximately 40 athletes, Area 29 offers Spring and Summer sports of swimming, tennis and singles bowling and in the Fall, golf and team bowling. Likewise, 20 Suffolk volunteers serve their time to the group and personally finance incidentals such as uniforms, equipment, lodging, meals and more to make these opportunities happen for the athletes. Smith talked about their fundraising efforts.

“The biggest one we have is the Polar Plunge, we just did that last weekend. We get a percentage back of everything that we raised for the area. So that goes a good ways in being able to take [the athletes] to State,” Smith said. “When we go to State level games we have to pay for hotels, meals, registration, all of that is in the one delegation charge. But we want to take as many of them as we can. So that’s why we fundraise all year long.”

Both Godinez and Smith emphasized the importance of volunteers to help continue their work for the athletes.

“Come on and help out if you would like. It really takes a little bit of a level of commitment, and I would challenge people to do that. Again, the benefit that you get back is like a 100 fold. It’s pretty amazing.”

Smith agreed, noting a need for volunteers for their swim meets.

“We need timers, we need runners, we need staging people. We’re always looking for volunteers to help,” Smith said.

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