Impacting lives, one sport at a time.
Published: March 1, 2017
By: Paige Townley
Angel Stone is a 14-year-old Thompson Middle School student who, like many teens, enjoys playing sports. She spends much of her time participating in activities like bowling, track and field, and even cheerleading. And she’s able to participate in these sports thanks in part to the Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities.
Every day, thousands of children and adults with intellectual disabilities like Angel all across Alabama and around the world get the opportunity to experience joy and build skills and friendships through the Special Olympics. The organization first began in the late 1950s, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver first noticed that children with intellectual disabilities didn’t have the same opportunities as other children. To provide a place and an opportunity to play sports, she opened up her backyard and began hosting summer camps. Little did she know that those backyard sports competitions would become an internationally-recognized organization.
The first International Special Olympics Summer Games was held in 1968 in Chicago, where 1,000 people with intellectual disabilities from 26 states and Canada competed in just three sports: track and field, swimming and floor hockey. By 1988, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) signed a historic agreement that officially endorsed and recognized the Special Olympics.
Today, the nonprofit boasts more than 4.7 million athletes in 169 countries and over one million volunteers. “Special Olympics athletes deserve the opportunity to compete in every sport in which they have interest,” says Special Olympics Alabama Executive Director Robert L. Bushong. “And with the help of those volunteers – we could not accomplish anything without their support – we are proud to be able to provide them with opportunities in numerous sports.”
Special Olympics Alabama was officially founded in 1986, and today it boasts approximately 16,000 athletes in more than 18 different sports. “Many people have this notion that people with intellectual disabilities don’t have much opportunity in their life,” Bushong says. “But we have all kinds of programs that offer opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities to succeed, and we have extremely high performing athletes taking part.”
Special Olympics’ Olympic-style individual and team sports offer meaningful opportunities for participants, and the organization offers various numerous competitions at various levels in each sport. Specifically in Alabama, there are events like the State Games – held every year in May at Troy University – and local competitions within each county’s Special Olympics program.
A significant program within the Special Olympics is Unified Sports, which joins people with and without intellectual disabilities on the same team. The Special Olympics’ athlete and the non-disabled partner train and compete together. “We create teams based on the athlete’ abilities and competition level,” Bushong explains. “We try hard to pair up the ability levels as closely as possible so that it’s equal and fair and everyone has the opportunity to win.”
Gay Litton has been volunteering with Special Olympics Alabama’s Shelby County program for more than 40 years. While she retired from Shelby County Schools years ago, she has continued her involvement with the Special Olympics. “What has always impressed me about the Special Olympics and what has kept me involved for so many years is that it not only provides opportunities for involvement to the athletes, but it gives their families opportunities to celebrate and cheer for their athletes,” she says. “A lot of these families don’t have many opportunities to do that. The Special Olympics gives families of athletes with intellectual disabilities an opportunity to celebrate their children and their accomplishments, as well as opportunities to interact with other families just like them.”
Litton is heavily involved in Shelby County’s Special Olympics program, specifically with its Unified Sports, which includes unified opportunities in bowling, golf, volleyball, softball, cycling, basketball, tennis and now flag football. The unified teams get opportunities to compete in state tournaments, and many have been to national competitions.
“We’ve had unified bowling teams go compete in Reno, Nevada, and this year we have teams going to Las Vegas,” she says.
“We recently sent several unified golf teams to Port St. Lucie, Florida, for a national invitational golf tournament there. There are so many opportunities with Unified Sports. It’s a great program on so many levels. It gives Special Olympics athletes opportunities to travel and for social interaction with non-disabled students and adults, all while they are building their skills in their sport. Then it also helps non-disabled students and adults better understand people with disabilities. It helps them see beyond the disability.”
Also helping people see Special Olympics athletes beyond their disabilities is Nan Franks, an adaptive physical education teacher for Alabaster City Schools and Special Olympics coordinator. A cheerleading coach for 18 years, Franks volunteers with a group of nine Special Olympics students, including Angel, on a cheer squad called ACS Spirit Squad. The group – the only Special Olympics cheer squad in the state – started with five students, and now the squad is up to nine and ranges from grades five to 11. “It’s really a thrill to see them perform an activity that other kids get to do and see them get the same attention,” Franks says. “Our squad got to walk in the Thompson homecoming parade and they cheered at the community-wide pep rally, where they performed a dance, and they were a big hit. They did a great job, and they were thrilled to be a part of it all.”
Last year, the cheerleading squad performed at the University of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium during the Special Olympics’ Flag Football game, which was part of the events for the Alabama High School Athletic Association Super 7 Football Championships.
Coming up, the Special Olympics cheerleading squad will be cheering at Special Olympics Alabama events, and Thompson High School basketball games. “It means so much that these girls have opportunities like these,” Franks says. “It means a lot to these girls to have an official squad and have a cheerleading uniform and pompoms. And it’s amazing to watch them doing these activities, which they’ve never had the opportunity to do before. That’s what the Special Olympics is all about.”
Paige Townley is a Birmingham freelance writer.