Special Olympics program rewards athletes, volunteers

Vicky King is perhaps best known as the longtime head coach of the powerhouse Land O’ Lakes High girls soccer team.

After all, the Gators did just secure its fourth-straight district championship and fifth-straight 20-plus win season, with sights now set on another regional title and state finals appearance.

However, that’s not the only team she coaches.

Land O’ Lakes High School varsity girls soccer coach Vicky King also runs the school’s Unified Special Olympics Program, which pairs special needs athletes with nondisabled partners to compete across a number of different sports. (Courtesy of Special Olympics Pasco County)

King also oversees the high school’s Unified Special Olympics sports program, which pairs special needs athletes with nondisabled peers, or ‘partners.’ Together, these Land O’ Lakes athletes and partners compete year-round against other unified programs across Pasco County and Florida — in everything from basketball and soccer, to flag football, bowling, golf and more.

King has done it for more than 30 years, ever since she took a coaching job at the high school in the mid-1980s, which came with the duty of working with athletes with special needs.

“Every (special needs) athlete appreciates everything,” explained King, the longest-tenured and winningest coach in Pasco County.

“Whether they win or not, they’ll play as hard as they can. They don’t argue about the calls. They just take it for what it is, whereas the people that are more gifted or more talented or have everything sometimes take it for granted.

“It’s just small things, like cheering for the other team, or sometimes giving up another basket to someone who’s never scored,” she said.

Besides coaching the Gators varsity girls soccer team, King is helping unified athletes at Land O’ Lakes gear up for the upcoming Pasco County Summer Games.

Scheduled for Feb. 22 and Feb. 23, at River Ridge and Wesley Chapel high schools, the summer games are expected to feature many of the county’s Special Olympic athletes competing in bocce, cycling, tennis, soccer and volleyball.

Inclusion and acceptance are major tenets of the Unified Special Olympics Program. Here, the River Ridge and Land O’ Lakes unified basketball teams share a picture after a recent competitive game.

That’s followed by the Area Summer Games in March and April. First-place finishes at area meets provides athletes the opportunity to advance to state championships — something Land O’ Lakes has accomplished frequently under King’s tutelage.

“We’ve been to state soccer — I can’t remember the last time we didn’t go — and then they’ve been to state basketball the past two years. A couple of them have gone to state swimming,” King said.

In Pasco County, there are more than 1,500 Special Olympics athletes and more than 200 volunteers across 17 offered sports.

The Land O’ Lakes unified program, meanwhile, features 24 coed athletes and nearly 40 partners.

It’s a solid participation rate based on the school’s ESE (Exceptional Student Education) population, King said.

Andrew Ahearn has been one of King’s standout unified athletes for several years, participating in soccer, basketball, flag football, bowling, and swimming, among others.

Ahearn has high-functioning autism and competes as a 21-year-old senior.

“Soccer is my favorite sport,” Ahearn said, noting he likes to run and score goals.

He’s never concerned himself with medals, or wins and losses.

Instead, Ahearn prides himself on teamwork and enjoying himself through physical activity.

“It’s not about winning or losing — it’s about having fun,” he said. “It ain’t about gold or medals or anything, it’s about…doing what’s best for the team.”

“I’ve always been a team player and forever will be a team player,” he added.

Involvement in unified sports helped Ahearn cultivate countless long-lasting friendships over the years.

Andrew Ahearn, wearing No. 10, is a standout on the Land O’ Lakes High School unified soccer team. Soccer is his favorite sport because he likes to run and score goals.

“I’ve got a lot of best friends and buddies in Special Olympics,” Ahearn said, as he rattled off the names of his Land O’ Lakes teammates. “Every athlete that’s a part of (the team) is my favorite.”

Some of the best memories came in 2015, when the Land O’ Lakes High School Unified Special Olympics Soccer journeyed to Los Angeles for the Special Olympics World Games. The Land O’ Lakes squad was the lone representative from the United States in unified soccer. They earned a bronze medal after defeating a team from China.

“It was fun,” Ahearn said, enthusiastically.

“We went to the Olympics Village, doing all kinds of stuff. …We went to dance, too. That was my favorite part,” he said.

Basketball is the last sport Ahearn competes in as a member of the Land O’ Lakes unified team. He’ll advance to the Masters division of Special Olympics after he turns 22 next month.

“He’s really good. I’m sure people will want him,” King said. “He’s very focused, hardworking, wants to do well. He’ll do any sport.”

According to Special Olympics Florida’s website, unified programs enable Special Olympics athletes to not only learn and play new sports, but also experience meaningful inclusion. Each athlete is ensured of playing a valued role on the team. The teams also provide a forum for positive social interaction.

All participants are of similar age and ability, and unified teams are constructed to provide training and competition opportunities that meaningfully challenge and involve all athletes.

Special Olympics sports rules, moreover, ensure everyone has “a fair and enjoyable competitive experience.”

Unified sports can also prove to be a rewarding experience for its volunteer partners, such as Land O’ Lakes High senior Kim Guglielmello.

Guglielmello has served as a unified partner for five years, dating back to when she was a student at Pine View Middle School.

“Oh, they’re the best,” said Guglielmello, who assists with basketball. “Just seeing the joy and excitement they get out of scoring a point…it’s probably the best experience you could possibly get.”

January marked the start of a fundraising campaign called “Light The Torch,” where Publix and other businesses support local Special Olympics programs.

For more information, visit SpecialOlympicsPasco.org.

Published January 31, 2018

Speak Your Mind


%d bloggers like this: