Special Olympics nurtures an enthusiasm for sports

February 23, 2010

By Laura Geggel

With her straight, brown hair tied in a ponytail, 11-year-old Abbey Powers threw her basketball into the air, bounced it against the backboard and grinned as it fell through the hoop.

Her teammates whooped and her father shouted words of encouragement before the ball even hit the ground.

While many children play basketball, Abbey is a special case. Doctors diagnosed her with both autism and cerebral palsy, although they never gave her family a clear diagnosis that would explain all of her challenges.

“It was unbelievable,” her father Jeff Powers said. “We were told she wouldn’t walk, we were told she wouldn’t talk, we were told she would only live to 2.”

Now a sixth-grader at Pine Lake Middle School, Abbey has a full schedule. Four years ago, her family enrolled her in Special Olympics for a children’s basketball class. At first, her parents only knew of practices in Woodinville, and would drive Abbey all the way from Issaquah so she could dribble the ball as part of a basketball team.

When they learned Issaquah offered a Special Olympics program in their own backyard, they were delighted, Jeff Powers said. But they’re not nearly as excited as Abbey.

“She got up extra early this morning,” her father said as he watched her and her friends play ball at the Issaquah Community Center. “She could hardly wait for basketball.”

Special Olympics in Issaquah

Today, scores of people support and coach Issaquah’s Special Olympics players. Thanks to Issaquah resident Leo Finnegan, Issaquah hosts two Special Olympics tournaments annually, including a basketball tournament in the winter and a softball tournament in the summer.

“I pushed to get them here,” said Finnegan, who said Special Olympic families used to have to drive all over the county for games. Issaquah is more in the middle of the county, he said, which makes the drive for many easier.

Finnegan first started coaching Special Olympics when his son’s high school coach retired. Like many Special Olympics players, Finnegan’s son, Tim Finnegan, has a developmental disorder. Tim Finnegan is now 43 and his family is still involved in the organization.

The Special Olympics has three divisions: junior (ages 8-15), senior (ages 16-21) and masters (ages 22 or older).

Leo Finnegan welcomes each player with the same enthusiasm and support, high-fiving them as they come in for basketball practice. He remembers details about each player, and asks them questions based on last week’s conversation about life and basketball.

“A lot of the athletes I coach are some of the most genuine people I’ve met,” Finnegan said.

Basketball and softball coach Ted Stamper said he enjoyed getting whole families involved, with siblings playing basketball together and parents coaching. He encouraged the community to get involved, too, whether people chose to coach on the court or cheer from the bleachers.

“That’s what it’s about: fun and exercise,” Stamper said.

It’s also about children with special needs realizing their full potential.

“Their whole lives, they’ve been told explicitly or implicitly they don’t fit in,” Leo Finnegan said.

For Abbey Powers, basketball connects her with other players, many of whom are now her friends.

“Abbey was shy the first year, but now she’s very outgoing,” her father said, adding that basketball gives his daughter confidence.

“I think it lets her know she can do what the other kids can do,” he said. “She’s shy, but she understands.”

Christopher Miller, a 13-year-old Special Olympic athlete from Redmond, said he bowls and plays basketball with the program.

“I just like hanging out with my friends,” he said. “We just do a lot of working out and running a lot.”

The Soukup family, of Sammamish, brings 14-year-old Aubrey to basketball practice, too. Aubrey has Down Syndrome, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her game.

“It gives her an opportunity to be part of a team,” her mother Julie Soukup said. “Her brothers and sisters are very athletic and it gives her an opportunity to have her own sport.”

How to get involved

King County has about 1,500 Special Olympic athletes. Coaches are welcome at any level, be it junior, senior or masters, said Megan Hemingson, King County region sports and training manager for Special Olympics.

Those interested in coaching must take two online courses, a protective behaviors class and the general orientation.

After completing those, they will take a sport skill-specific course, such as a soccer or aquatics course.

Coaches must recertify every four years.

People can either be a head or an assistant coach. Head coaches must be 18 years or older and need to submit a background check done by both the Washington State Patrol and a national database. Assistant coaches can be 16 to 17 years old.

Skyline High School junior Chris Torres has volunteered as an assistant basketball coach for two years.

“It’s good community service and I really enjoy doing it,” he said.

Torres said working with Special Olympics athletes has helped him realize how inappropriate some of the Special Olympics stereotypes are, especially those about players not being skilled at sports.

“They are so much smarter than you would imagine,” he said. “I don’t even think they’re special anymore, because they actually make some crazy plays.”

Torres pointed at an athlete wearing a green jersey.

“He’s a guy with talent,” Torres said. “I’ll watch him and he’ll run up to the 3-point line and just turn and shoot and sink it.”

Just as he finished his sentence, another player made a basket, the ball landing on the carpeted community center floor with a thud.

“Good job guys!” Torres clapped and shouted.

‘Everybody encourages everybody’

Another Skyline junior, Michelle Bretl, has made many friends on the court through assistant coaching.

“I always get hugs every day and it makes me smile, because I know that they’re having fun and that they enjoy it,” she said. “It’s very rewarding.”

Bretl’s mother Teresa Bretl is the executive director of Athletes for Kids. She instilled a strong sense of community service in her daughter. Like mother like daughter, apparently, as Michelle Bretl commended Special Olympic athletes and encouraged others to get involved.

“Special Olympics is a place where people can just be themselves and be comfortable with who they are and how they play,” she said. “They don’t have to be perfect at everything, but they should get the opportunity to do what they love.”

Jeff Powers attested to that, saying his daughter will “crack up and laugh” whenever a ball is in her court.

“There are some good ball players,” Powers added. “They can dribble behind their back.”

During one game, Abbey’s team lost 68-2, and she was the one who made her team’s only shot.

“She was the leading scorer,” Powers said, clearly proud of his daughter’s achievement.

Leo Finnegan called the positive atmosphere pivotal to any Special Olympics practice or game.

“We never let anybody say anything negative about anything,” he said. “Even if they miss a free throw, we cheer.”

Parent LeeAnna Hayes agreed.

“Everybody encourages everybody, even on the opposite team,” Hayes said. “It doesn’t matter how good you are. This is a very happy environment for everybody.”

Date to remember

Special Olympics Softball Tournament

  • 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • July 31
  • Tibbetts Valley Park, 965 12th Ave. N.W.
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