By Kyle LoJacono
PASCO — While high school athletics are mostly about who wins and loses, the Special Olympics has a different goal.
“It gives these kids an opportunity to show what they can do, not what they can’t,” said Valerie Lundin, co-coordinator for the Special Olympics in Pasco County. “For a day, for a minute, they can forget what they can’t do. It also lets them be with their friends and have a good time.”
Lundin has been a coordinator for the games for 26 years. She is also an adaptive physical educations teacher at Cotee River Elementary School in New Port Richey.
“Adaptive means that I help kids with special needs on a daily basis,” she said. “I got into it by accident because I really wanted to coach college basketball. When I couldn’t do that I went back to (the University of South Florida) and got a graduate degree in adaptive P.E. My teachers thought I’d be good at it and I’ve loved it ever since.”
This year’s Pasco County games will be at two locations on different days for the first time. The first day is Feb. 23 at Wesley Chapel High School, and the second is Feb. 25 at River Ridge High School. The event was split to allow for easier travel for athletes on either side of the county, and because about 975 children will be participating in the county games.
The participants may have certain challenges, but they want to win just as badly as other high school athletes.
“Don’t you even think about telling them that winning doesn’t matter,” said Vicky King, who has coached during the Special Olympics in Pasco County since 1986. “These kids just haven’t been given as many gifts as most kids, but they get everything out of it. They just want to compete and win like everyone else.”
King has been the Land O’ Lakes High School girls soccer coach since the program began 23 years ago. She coaches a variety of Special Olympics sports, including soccer, cycling, bowling, track and field, volleyball and basketball.
“I love coaching the Land O’ Lakes soccer team, but coaching Special Olympics athletes is a break from dealing with teenage high school girls who can be a handful,” King said. “Special Olympics athletes don’t bring any drama to the field and just want to compete.”
The Special Olympics, founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver of the famous political Kennedy family, is a way for mentally and physically challenged athletes to compete in the Olympics.
At the first games in Chicago, Shriver said to the athletes, “In ancient Rome, the gladiators went into the arena with these words on their lips: ‘let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.’ Let us begin the Olympics.”
Shriver supported the Special Olympics until her death Aug. 11 of last year.
The games has grown to include high school athletics across the nation, and first appeared in Pasco in 1973. Today, the athletes compete in many different sporting events in four seasons throughout the year.
“Each child selects the sport they want to compete for each season and they are then divided by age and ability,” Lundin said. “At the county games in February, the athletes will be competing in track and field, soccer, cycling, bocce ball, tennis and volleyball.
“Those who advance go to the area games, which includes Pasco, Pinellas, Citrus, Sumter and Hernando counties, and then those who qualify will compete at Disney’s’ Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando,” she continued. “The state games are May 14 to 16.”
While the games are about the athletes, the Special Olympics could not go on without the student volunteers.
“Land O’ Lakes has a club called the Council for Exceptional Children, which has about 120 students who help at the games,” King said. “Other schools like Zephyrhills High (School) have a Special Olympics club too. I’d like to see more schools send volunteers because they really help bring the games together.”
One volunteer form Zephyrhills is Bulldogs girls soccer player Amber Morgenstern, who said volunteering in the Special Olympics is one of the best things she has ever done. It is volunteers like Morgenstern that make the Special Olympics happen.
“They help the games run smoothly, do crafts with the athletes when they aren’t competing and even compete with them in unified events,” King said.
A unified event is when volunteers compete with Special Olympics athletes, which King said is the trend at the games. An example of a unified event is soccer, which has teams of three Special Olympics athletes and two volunteers who play other unified teams.
“All people have to do to volunteer at the games is show up between 10:30 and 11 (a.m.) on either day at either school’s main office with photo identification,” Lundin said. “It’s that easy.”
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