The Winter Games in Sochi have ended, but a different set of Olympic athletes are gearing up for opening ceremonies in Wesley Chapel this week.
Special Olympics competitors in a variety of sports are expected to participate in the Pasco County Summer Games on Friday at Wesley Chapel High School. The games are affiliated with Special Olympics Florida, the state’s chapter of Special Olympics Inc., which organizes athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Florida’s counties and regions host local games, with winners advancing to state, national or even international competitions.
Wesley Chapel will host athletes from Central and East Pasco County. West Pasco athletes will participate in games at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey.
Wesley Chapel High is ready for the games to begin, said Bridget White, a special education teacher and one of the school’s coordinators for the Special Olympics.
“We feel very honored to host this type of event, and we just love that it keeps getting bigger and bigger every year,” she said. The school has hosted the Summer Games for at least the past four years, and it expects around 475 athletes to participate this year.
That’s a big jump from when the Special Olympics first started in Pasco County decades ago, according to county co-director Valerie Lundin. In 1975, the local Special Olympics had just 175 athletes.
Between the two locations for the Summer Games this year, more than 1,100 athletes are expected to participate, and total attendance at Wesley Chapel High alone could top 1,000 when factoring in family, volunteers and other spectators. The high school was chosen to host the games due to its ability to accommodate the crowds and the buses, which bring students in from different schools.
After the opening ceremonies, athletes will start competing in the different sports represented in the Summer Games: track and field, bocce, soccer skills, cycling and tennis. There also will be an Olympic Village, with games and activities for the athletes and their friends to enjoy while they wait to compete.
While event winners will earn ribbons, it’s not necessarily the end of the competition for any of the athletes, regardless of their finish. Each competitor in the county games is allowed to participate in the area games, which includes athletes from Pasco, Pinellas, Citrus, Sumter and Hernando counties. From there, only qualifiers will move on to state competition.
The Special Olympics always has a great turnout of volunteers and supporters to help the event succeed and cheer on the participants, White said. And for the athletes, it’s a chance for them to enjoy the spotlight and showcase their skills.
“It’s an opportunity for our kids with disabilities to have something that’s all about them and that’s catered to them,” she said. “So instead of going to their brothers and sisters’ events all the time, they get to come to their events and they get to be the superstar.”
While the Special Olympics is able to consistently promote awareness and celebrate the skills of their student-athletes, Lundin would like to see the organization attract more adult participants as well. Athletes of any age are welcome.
“I know there are a lot of adults in Pasco County who qualify but are not participating at this time, and we’d love to really focus on that population and getting them more involved,” she said.
The opening ceremonies begin at 11:30 a.m., Friday at the school, located at 30651 Wells Road. The event is free and open to the public, with concessions available. Proceeds benefit Special Olympics.
For more information regarding the Summer Games or to inquire about participation, visit SpecialOlympicsFlorida.org, or call (352) 243-9536.
Published Feb. 26, 2014.