Special Olympics hoopsters gain confidence, catch up with friends

February 9, 2010

By Nicholas Trost

While many people were preparing for the Super Bowl, hundreds of athletes from around King County gathered at the Issaquah Community Center to compete in the 2010 Special Olympics Regional Basketball Tournament.The competition, hosted by Special Olympics Washington, featured more than 400 athletes. Close to 35 teams from seven divisions participated, all trying to qualify for seven spots in the state tournament March 5-7 in Wenatchee.

The event gave the athletes, each with an intellectual disability, a unique social opportunity.

“This tournament is a special social opportunity for these athletes,” said Megan Hemingson, sports and program manager for the King County Region. “A lot of our athletes are over 22 and out of the schools, so coming together for Special Olympics gives them a social opportunity they don’t often get.”

From this opportunity comes many benefits, one of which is helping the athletes see themselves in a more positive light.

“Coming to this tournament builds up my confidence and self-esteem,” said Derek Swanson, point guard for the Issaquah Wolves. “I have fun meeting my opponents.”

With so many athletes, it takes many volunteers to make the tournament a success. Often, the teams of 10 players are coached by parents and community members who want to influence the athletes in a meaningful way.

“I’ve been coaching for 22 years, and it’s a fabulous experience for me,” said Sharon Boyle, coordinator for the city of Federal Way and the Federal Way School District. “I love the camaraderie these athletes have with their teams. It’s amazing to see these athletes grow and build friendships.”

For many athletes, the event makes them feel like they belong. Whether it’s making that game-winning shot, or giving that final hug at the end of the game, the event makes these athletes feel “normal.”

“These events are where they are the norm rather than the exception,” Hemingson said. “Everything here is inclusive.”

Even with the social benefits, most of the athletes come to the tournament with one goal: making the state tournament in March. For them, that is the culmination of months of hard work and dedication. But for other athletes, there is a more specific motivation.

“I want to see the Sea Gals,” said Kevin Lyons, a forward for the Issaquah Wolves. “I want to play well here and get to the state tournament so I can see them.”

Win or lose, Sea Gals or not, at the final whistle, all these athletes will have something to be proud of.

“Either way, it’s fun to be here,” Lyons said. “It’s about having fun for special-needs kids.”

Nicholas Trost is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.

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