Like it has done with seemingly everything else — coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) threw a wrench into Special Olympics-Pasco’s event schedule for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.
The pandemic led to the cancellation of local and state-level competitions and practices for more than 1,500 local Special Olympics athletes. It also forced the cancellation of the organization’s two largest annual fundraisers — a 5K race set for April and a golf scramble set for May.
It’s all meant less than ideal circumstances for Special Olympics-Pasco director Val Lundin, who’s set to retire this summer after 36 years with the nonprofit organization.
“It kind of stings to end this way,” Lundin said. “But, it is what it is.”
The longtime director has spent her final weeks offering support to local Special Olympics athletes, letting them know they’ll see a ballfield or gymnasium before too long.
“This has been very hard for our athletes,” Lundin said. “They don’t really quite understand, and this is their life, so we’ve made some of those phone calls ensuring them things will get back to normal, and to just hang in there.”
While traditional Special Olympics-Pasco activities have been temporarily shuttered, its statewide counterpart, Special Olympics Florida, has organized a slew of virtual daily activities and events hosted on Zoom and social media platforms.
They include live workouts, Zumba, crafts, dance classes, beginner-level martial arts, as well as segments on nutrition, fashion, and stress management.
The statewide organization also has introduced a daily fitness challenge series on Facebook called, “Fit 5 Like a Pro,” which encourages Special Olympics athletes to exercise five times per week, eat five fruits and vegetables daily, and drink five glasses of water a day. The challenge features minute-long videos from various professional, world-class athletes giving tips on building strength, flexibility, endurance and so on.
Notable athletes who’ve submitted minute-long videos include Tampa Bay Rays All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows, Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate and Orlando Magic point guard D.J. Augustin, among many others.
Meanwhile, the statewide organization last week put together a “Spirit Week,” where athletes were encouraged in an online setting to show off their medals, personality and team pride.
Special Olympics-Pasco, like other county programs throughout the state, has worked to spread word on the virtual programs and to involve as many athletes as possible.
Lundin said myriad online programs has helped her athletes stay busy and “keep their spirits up” in lieu of the canceled 2020 State Summer Games — the pinnacle of the season.
That had been scheduled to take place this month at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“There’s something every day for them to just keep them engaged, as some of them may be feeling the pinch of (not having) state games,” Lundin said.
Many special memories
Lundin started with Special Olympics-Pasco in 1984, also working as an adaptive physical education teacher at Cotee River Elementary in New Port Richey.
For her, the gig melded a perfect fit — combining her love of children, sports and education.
“I’ve just truly, truly been blessed to fall into the career,” Lundin said. “I’ve always said it probably gave me more than I’ve given it.”
When she began her career more than three decades ago, the county’s Special Olympics program had approximately 125 athletes. Bowling and track and field were the only sport offerings.
Today, the local program has more than 1,500 athletes competing in 19 different sports.
Lundin credits the Pasco County school district for being onboard with so many Special Olympics events and programs over the years, such as “Unified Sports,” which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same teams across elementary, middle and high schools. It’s helped cultivate more inclusion, understanding and friendships among Special Olympics athletes and non-disabled students, she said.
“We’ve just been so blessed that the school district has supported us, as it does any athletic program within the school district,” Lundin said. “They allowed us to build a program, and as Special Olympics Florida added sports, the athletes just loved it and the program kept growing…”
As her lengthy tenure winds down, the longtime Special Olympics advocate has spent ample time rummaging through old photo albums, as she begins to clean out her office.
It’s all evoked “so many special memories, it’s overwhelming to even think about it,” Lundin said.
She observed: “It’s just been incredible. Being able to work with these athletes, they’re just so inspiring, they’ve kept me going, and it’s times when it gets busy and overwhelmed, you just think about what it means to them.”
One of the biggest highlights of her career was seeing the Land O’ Lakes Special Olympics unified soccer team represent Team U.S.A., at the 2015 Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles.
The team earned a bronze medal after defeating China, 2-1.
“It was an exciting time for us — those athletes and partners worked so hard,” she said.
In general, being able to send athletes to other states and countries to compete is rewarding, she added.
“We’ve sent athletes to Ireland, Greece, Minnesota, North Carolina — those are some proud moments because that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of those athletes,” Lundin said.
Though soon officially retired, Lundin isn’t heading into the sunset anytime in the near future.
She plans to continue to volunteer at Special Olympics-Pasco.
“You just don’t just spend 35 years in building a program and let it go, so I will still be involved.”
As for when Special Olympics in-person activities may resume locally, Lundin said the decision will be made by the state organization’s CEO, Sherry Wheelock, in accordance with guidelines put forth by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
“Our fingers are crossed for the beginning of June, but that could change tomorrow,” Lundin said.
For information, visit SpecialOlympicsFlorida.org/pasco.
Published May 20, 2020