By Chris Lather
As a new special education teacher 5 years ago, I had very little knowledge of Special Olympics. That all quickly changed when I was thrust into practices and events with my students. We were making bonds and sharing a different experience outside of the classroom. I knew right away this was something I really wanted to become involved in as much as I could. I found myself looking forward to the weekly practices and frequent events as much, if not more, than the athletes!
My first eye opening experience was at State Basketball in Yankton. I had been to the State Bowling Tournament in Aberdeen, but that was more of a relaxed environment in which the athletes did more for themselves. The coaches seemed more like fans who were there to encourage and help out only when something went wrong. I enjoyed bowling, but not to the extent of basketball. I quickly noticed how the environment was more than just winning and losing. The attitudes of most athletes was beyond stunning. I have played sports year round for nearly all my life. I have seen the joys and pain of these other sports. When I arrived at Special Olympics however, there was so much more going on. It was almost as if winning was an afterthought. I saw the biggest smiles I had ever seen from simple things like completing a pass or dribbling to the hoop. On more than one occasion I witnessed high fives for athletes who simply made the ball to the hoop. I was shocked. This was truly something special. Even more than just the athletes, I noticed the enjoyment of the officials, coaches, and volunteers. They really made the atmosphere gratifying.
Like anything else, these new experience weren’t completely positive. I had my ups and downs getting to know and push athletes to their limits and beyond. We endured many practices where they and I struggled to see eye-to-eye. I learned a lot about them and myself during that first year. I took some time to regroup and think about how to better serve them. I realized how important it was that I put in the time to break things down and explain. What was most important for them to succeed and still have fun? I HAD to find a way to address all the different learning styles of the student-athletes. This led me to be a better coach. In turn I felt like they had more success. Those moments they succeed and experience that “AHA!” moment is really special for me as I feel it is for them.
I am seeing this growth more and more through Unified Sports. The last 3 years have been amazing in Special Olympics. My student-athletes are excelling and becoming members of the school and community. They are opening up more with their peers. They walk the halls with pride. They know more of their non-disabled peers than ever before, and they even feel comfortable exchanging greetings with them in the hallways. I don’t feel like we have a small group of just individuals with disabilities anymore. We are now becoming and community of individuals with shared interests that can find common ground and learn from each other. I continue to have more and more non-disabled peers come to me and ask to get involved in the classroom and in Special Olympics. I expect this number to continue to grow and grow. By opening the door for more people to enter the world of individuals with disabilities we have truly made a difference. Everyone is better for having experienced life with someone different from themselves. They are seeing life from a different perspective. When we attend trips to state events it seems as though the unified athletes find out how much they are alike than how much they differ with the Special Olympic athletes. They are making more memories than I ever thought possible!
A little about Chris: