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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!
I personally know that at least 4 unified partners’ lives have been changed since we started Unified Sports here in Castlewood. These individuals are all pursuing degrees in either special education or other education fields. They want to stay involved in the future and begin their own path in Special Olympics. To me this is how the future of Special Olympics will survive. We need good people who are willing to get involved. These people have to be selfless and want to make a real difference. The world of education has some tremendous individuals who can make this happen, but I know there are more out there who could help spread the message of...
“Play Unified, Live Unified
A little about Chris:
Chris is a K-12 SPED teacher for the NESC in Castlewood, SD. He just completed his 5th year of teaching. Chris has been coaching Special Olympics for 5 years. In addition to Special Olympics he is the Assistant Varsity Football Coach at Hamlin, Assistant Varsity Boys Basketball Coach at Castlewood, Volunteer Track and Field Coach at Castlewood, and a rec baseball coach for youth. With a full load of coaching he tries to find whatever free time he has to enjoy hunting and fishing, playing rec basketball and amateur baseball, running, playing guitar, and cooking.
By: Chad VanderPoel
She has been dreaming of this moment her whole life. She looks down at her path ahead. It's littered with famous names ranging from Cèline Dion to Mickey Mouse to Walter Matthau to Sandra Bullock. Each star signifying each individual’s lifetime accomplishments. She can sense the aura of the many great ones that have performed on the big screen or the big stage. She looks up to them, she studies them, she wants to be like them. She dreams of being on her own star.
Chana Sandoval has made it to the place she has never been, Hollywood. For years she has envisioned herself on stage dancing and singing to her favorite song, “My Heart Will Go On.” Here she is where so many other stars had their dreams filled. It’s her moment. She is ready for the bright lights of her own star to form. If her beginning says anything, it’s that there is no limit for Chana. She has made it this far.
Ok, back up. This moment hasn’t actually occurred, yet. Everyone has that big vision in their head of where they would like to go or what they want to do. They have goals and they have journeys to reach them. They have dreams. Well, this is one of Chana's dreams and she has defied expectations to this point in time.
Chana was born in Japan before spending most of her life in Sioux Falls. Her father was serving in the Navy at the time. Her family didn't truly know what she was capable of during her younger years. Truth be told, she didn't know either. She was a very shy girl, clinging to her mom's hip wherever she went. She didn't know how to do things on her own. Then at age 12 it all changed.
During her 6th grade year her mom found an opportunity that would help her grow into what no one knew was possible. She became involved with Special Olympics. Just like anything she did before that was new, she was hesitant and apprehensive to try. With the comfort of her mom, she took that "step to the edge of the nest" and saw a new world, one with others trying to find their way as well. Quickly she met new friends. There were local friends like Erin and Emily Gustaf and Sarah Faue. Eventually, the world got bigger as she traveled to events in other communities. She'd gain friends like Dawn Ruhlman, Ashley Clark, and Robert Catherman from other towns.
Little by little, the attachment from her shyness grew less and less. She learned about her ability to be independent. Soon she was accomplishing feats her mom Barb Sandoval will say, "I never thought it was even a thought. She started doing things I didn't know she could do."
Chana's Special Olympics career took off in a blur and it hasn't slowed down to this day. She started competing in anything and everything from basketball to soccer to swimming to softball to gymnastics to skiing and most recently bocce. Bocce is the one she claims to like competing in the most because it's new, she has a teammate, and she looks forward to its future.
However, while bocce may have the recency effect playing on her, the sport that has taken her to the biggest heights has been track and field, particularly the pentathlon event. She has competed on the largest Special Olympics stages, whether it be USA Games in Nebraska, Iowa, or New Jersey or World Games in Ireland. Ireland is the one that stands out the most because it was where she turned a struggle into a triumph.
Not yet 20 years old at the time, she was still learning how to get better at the pentathlon. The pentathlon is made up of five disciplines: the high jump, long jump, 100 meter dash, 400 meter dash, and the shot put. There was one discipline that continued to plague her, the high jump. It was her biggest struggle. She worked constantly to improve her jumping leading up to the 2003 World Games. She found her place on the podium to earn her 3rd place medal at the Games and it was because of the weakness she prevailed over in the high jump. It was what made it all possible. She stepped up and made the goal of reaching the podium a possibility and that possibility and an achievement.
Coming from someone who was timid, Chana will be the first to point out who her favorite supporters are. The circle of friends she has gained around her throughout her career are those who encourage her as well as her family. She'll give credit to the great coaches who helped her at those high levels, one of her favorites being Brian Jacobsen and how he helped her improve. Then it will all go back to her biggest supporter from day one, the one who pushed her to let go a little more and then a little more and then even more, her mom. "She just helps so much," Chana says referring to her mom.
Mom quickly turns it around, "Chana has worked hard to get better. All of the skill building has done endless things for her. She is more independent and she is more confident." To this day Chana's favorite part about competing is having her mom watch, sometimes to the point of frustration if mom is attending to the event and misses something.
Chana has found other things through Special Olympics she loves like going to many places, being around friends, and meeting new people. Who would have thought that the shy 12 year old girl would become the woman who loves to meet new people? Now it doesn't take long and she can be caught smiling and laughing, even with those she first met. Her roommate and lifelong Special Olympic friend will point out right away how funny Chana is. Her personality continues to show more and more.
The confidence shows outside the competition arena as well, whether it be in a competitive game of UNO or the many speaking engagements she has done. Many thought it would be too hard for her. She's even flashed that Hollywood smile in TV interviews. She's also not afraid to tell about her crush when asked about her favorite TV show. She loves NCIS but she loves Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) even more (insert googly eyes emoticon). "He's hot," she'll assuredly say.
Her favorites don't end with Tony. She loves to collect books, particularly romance ones. She also loves cats and dogs. She will eat cheese pizza anytime. She'll play favorites when it comes to football and by favorites that means rooting for the Packers, Cowboys, Broncos, Patriots, and Panthers. She is a fan of the movie the Hunger Games and a repeat fan of Dennis the Menace. When it comes to TV and movies her family will tell you it is impossible to watch with her because she is always laughing or repeating lines.
Chana has a lot of favorites and interests that bring out who she is. One of her passions is photography. Give her a camera and she finds another level of confidence. Taking pictures allows her to show her goofy side but also the things she cares about. She knows how to fill a memory card real quick.
The transformation through it all is what stands out for Chana and what Special Olympics has done for her. She is now able to showcase her talents to friends, family, and many others. She has grown to the point where she has become very good at helping younger athletes and letting them find their niche to become who they can be. "I want to be a good sport and set an example. I want to help people when they need help," she says.
Today, Chana finds pride in what she has become. It could be the healthy lifestyle she leads by exercising every morning. It could be living independently with her best friend. It could be loving her job at the mall. She was given the opportunity to grow. The young girl has become a leader amongst her peers, something that seemed far fetched many years ago. It may have been like a dream but dreams can become reality. While she hasn't became the star in Hollywood yet, she has formed her own star, one those around her will say is bright.
By: Gunner Sanderson
Hi, my name is Gunner Sanderson. I am 15 years old and am a sophomore in Clark High School.
I have Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome.
I have had 27 surgeries in my life.
I had a Pectus Bar put in my chest last December. So, I missed last year's basketball and summer Olympics.
I like Special Olympics because I get to play sports and make new friends.
I compete in bowling, basketball, soccer, shotput, long jump, and running events.
Before Special Olympics I did not get to play sports and I had no friends, now I have both.
The person who impacted me the most is my high school principal, Mr. Hartley. He is my best friend.
I like being in the Boy Scouts. We get to go camping.
Getting to go to Special Olympics makes me feel like everyone else.
I like unified sports because it makes normal kids understand that I am a little different but I am still a kid, just like them.
Gunner B. Sanderson
By: Tea Hill
“Special Olympics is about transforming lives, including your own.” Little did I know just how true that phrase was before my experiences with this organization. My passion for Special Olympics sparked when I was in seventh grade. I remember watching my sister as a unified partner at the state basketball games in Yankton. They stopped the clock towards the very end of one game so an athlete could make a basket. At the time, I didn’t quite understand why. What were they doing stopping the clock? Isn’t the other team going to be upset?
Since that game, I learned a lot about why they stopped that clock and why the other team was so understanding. Special Olympics is such a unique organization that focuses on making every single athlete feel special and accepted.
Soon after I started volunteering I realized that these incredibly special people stole my heart. I witnessed first hand what these athletes were like. They laughed, loved, and cared more deeply than I ever thought humanly possible. So genuine. I thought I would be helping the athletes, and doing them a favor, but little did I know that I would learn life’s most important lessons through them.
I learned to see the best in others.
I learned to accept others without passing judgement.
I learned to laugh at myself.
I learned patience.
I learned to enjoy the simple things.
Although Special Olympics is built around competition, the athletes aren’t concerned with the scoreboard as much as they are with creating lasting friendships and memories. Some of my favorite memories come from being a unified partner. Last year I was watching a basketball game at the state tournament. A shorter athlete had a difficult time shooting the ball high enough up in the air, so a unified partner from the other team lifted him up to score. Everyone started cheering from both teams- it was an incredible experience to witness.
The relationships I built while volunteering for Special Olympics and being a unified partner will always be ones I will cherish. Some of my favorite memories come from all the Special Olympics dances. I remember meeting an athlete named Levi one minute and the next singing “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” at the top of our lungs while he played his air guitar. It was moments like those where I was so grateful to be part of such a wonderful organization.
It’s amazing watching the athletes getting up on the podium to receive their ribbon. It doesn’t matter what place they got, they still are beaming with excitement. They have this enthusiasm and love for life that is so refreshing- something everyone needs.
Special Olympics involved late nights of playing jenga in the hotel lobby, long car rides filled with junk food and laughter, and endless teasing and joking (Always out of love, of course).
My absolute favorite experience with Special Olympics is watching the athletes after they bowl a strike, make a basket, or win a race. The excitement on their face reminds me why I do what I do. The high fives, cheers, and hugs afterwards are incomparable to anything else.The enthusiasm is contagious and I love being amidst all of the excitement, encouragement, and love.
I’m the happiest when I’m at Special Olympics.
A little about Tea:
Tea is now studying at the University of Wyoming. Tea has spends a lot of her time with the Belle Fourche Special Olympics program. She offers her genuine friendship and time to all of the athletes. She has been an integral part of the goal to play/live unified in the Belle Fourche school because she is in a position to positively influence others. Tea is committed to serving individuals with special needs throughout her life.
By: Jon Cole
By: Miranda Breitag
My name is Miranda Breitag. I am 19 years old and I am from Watertown, SD. I was fortunate to have been introduced to Special Olympics at age of 4 due to my mom volunteering our horses for Saddle-Up. Saddle-Up is the therapeutic horse riding club in the Watertown area. We were sought out for our horses due to their dependability and soft-hearted nature. At first, my mom, my sisters, and I were just a few volunteers, a few of many if I might add. I remember sitting on the tops of barrels while the riders would go through trail and I was in charge of putting the rings back on the other pole when they ran out and I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to be able to lead one of the horses around or be a side walker.
Over the years, it began to get harder and harder to find volunteers and horses to help us out. Because of this, my mom made the decision to move up to being a coach rather than just a volunteer. It hasn’t been easy by any means, every year we tend to be one horse shorter but we always pull through in the end. Fortunately, Lake Area Tech’s Occupational Therapist Assistant students have helped us these past couple years to fulfill their volunteer hour requirements. Without them we would definitely be struggling, we are beyond grateful for their help and support.
Now that I have finally reached the age where I am done with sports and out of 4H and High School Rodeo, I have been able to officially become a coach for our club. It may not seem like a huge deal, I mean I’ve basically been coaching for the past 6 years at least. But that is why it means so much to me. It is something I have looked forward to since I can remember. I am honored to be able to coach these athletes and watch them improve more and more every year.
Special Olympics has brought me so many unforgettable memories and relationships over the years, but there are a couple in particular that I would love to share with all of you. A couple very strong relationships that I have built over the years are with our athletes Mariah, Sara, and Sam. Mariah has been a part of our club since I was just starting to volunteer. She is the type of person who just lights up a room without any effort and who excels at everything she does. She has a laugh that is contagious, and she will tickle you until you’re in tears. She knows everyone, and everyone simply can’t help but love her. I am blessed to be a part of her life and I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for her.
Another special relationship that I have built over the years is with Sam and Sara. Sam is the older sister of Sara and they have been with us for quite a few years now. I remember when Sam and Sara first came to us, Sam was very shy and a little unsure about the whole thing. But, with time Sam warmed up to the idea and she surprises us with improvement each and every year. Her favorite horse is our boy Indy. Indy and she have built quite the bond over the years and it is amazing to watch that bond grow stronger and stronger. Sara, Sam’s little sister, is a very bubbly and outgoing little girl. She always makes you laugh and is full of energy. She has become quite the little cowgirl and never ceases to impress me every year. These two girls are just a joy to be around and I am so grateful for the both of them as well as their father who has been a huge help to my mom and I over the past few years.
I have been blessed to be a part of such an amazing organization and over the years it has taught me more about myself than I could have ever imagined. I will continue to be a part of Special Olympics for many years to come. My life long goal will be to graduate from LATI as a physical therapist assistant, and open up my own therapeutic horse riding ranch where we can continue a club like Saddle-Up and kids and their families can spend a few days at. I cannot wait to see the opportunities and doors that Special Olympics will open up for me in the future. I am grateful for all the volunteers who have helped us over the years and for the amazing families. Without you guys, we couldn’t do what we do for these kids. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. Who knew that giving my time to these riders would reward me in so many ways!
By: Kaylee Schirado
My name is Kaylee Schirado, and I have been a coach for the Special Olympics Brookings delegation for the past 3 years. My experience with Special Olympics began during my sophomore year of college at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. As a part of my required coursework, I was taking EHS 150 which consisted of a lot of journaling and accumulating volunteer hours. Students were given a long list of organizations they could complete these hours through: the Boys and Girls Club, Harvest Table, and so on. Out of all of these wonderful organizations, I myself chose Brookings Special Olympics, in that I have a passion for sports and being active. Prior to this experience I have never been involved with Special O, but I did spend a lot of my free time in high school out at Handi Riders (is now called Horse Power) in Sioux Falls. Handi Riders (Horse Power) is a ranch that provides therapeutic horseback riding services to individuals with physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities.
At first I was very unsure of how I would fit into the team’s dynamic, but sure enough Coach Suzy and Coach Jessie threw me to the wind and we all got along just fine with our shared sense of sarcasm! I soon learned just how much time Coaches Suzy and Jessie dedicate to the team and the athletes, not just in practice time but also every other day of the week. Special Olympics Brookings soon became my life 2-3 days of the week and every other weekend it seemed. Between weekly practices and weekend sporting events, the coaches and athletes became my friends and family. I’ve coached athletes in a majority of the sports seasons, but was most involved in bowling, basketball, and track & field. Some of my most cherished memories were traveling to and from weekend bowling tournaments in Sioux Falls and Mitchell, region basketball tournaments in Yankton, and the regional track meet held in Brandon each year. Although the sports events, watching my athletes compete, and winning awards were all fun, I think the best times I remember having were during our down time in between games, on the bus rides, and many hotel stays. This is when I got to spend quality time with my athletes and my fellow coaches. I got to combine two things I love dearly: caring for people, and athletics.
Each season I became closer with my Brookings Special O family, and I was given more and more opportunities to grow in my coaching abilities. I’ve spoken in classrooms on campus about my experience with Special Olympics which has encouraged other students to volunteer, I’ve participated in and volunteered for the Polar Plunge 5K and other Special O fundraisers, and in this last year I was given the privilege of attending the National Unified Bowling tournament in Reno, Nevada with a team of four coaches and four athletes to represent team South Dakota. This experience in itself was by far my favorite memory. After becoming an official Special Olympics South Dakota Unified Partner, I was paired with my partner Luke to attend the 2016 National Unified Bowling tournament. Luke and I, along with three other pairs of coaches/athletes spent 5 days competing in bowling competition along with meeting unified partners from about half of the 50 United States. We all spent lots of quality time together during competition and while out exploring Reno.
I will say my absolute favorite part of the trip was overcoming a huge obstacle with my partner, Luke. Long story short, Luke is most well-known for always wearing velcro shoes. His bowling shoes, however, have laces (Luke has never fully known or really desired to tie shoes). The day before competition, we arrived at the arena to have practice time. Luke and I sat down to put our shoes on, and he puts one of his feet up on my lap and grins at me (his usual routine to get me to tie his shoes for him). I said, “You know what Luke, I think that since we are here for something big, you’re going to do something big. I think its time we have a shoe tying lesson!”. After lots of disagreement, head shaking, refusals, and many trials, I had finally gotten him to tie not one but both of his shoes! As it is something most of us take for granted on a daily basis, it was such a huge accomplishment for Luke. Little moments like these are what shaped my entire experience as a Special Olympics coach. Special Olympics truly is about the people you meet, not just about the competition and awards. In many of my pictures I’ve kept over these 3 years, I can’t help but notice the smiles on my athlete’s faces. Their smiles. That is what I will remember for years to come!
Thank you, Special Olympics for shaping me into the woman I am today!
A little about Kaylee:
I attended South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD for four years where I recently graduated in May of 2016 and completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Human Development and Family Studies. In my time at SDSU, I’ve been involved with a few different clubs and organizations on and off campus. I was involved with Lost and Found (a campus organization for awareness and prevention of suicide), Human Development and Family Studies Club, and Pre Physical/Occupational Therapy Club. I was a Community Assistant on campus for two years, and a Special Olympics coach for three years. Another organization I was very heavily involved in for 3 years was State-A-Thon. State-A-Thon is an organization (a part of nationally-known Dance Marathon) that aims to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network. I very much enjoyed my time at SDSU, but now I am on to pursue higher education. I have recently been accepted to the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota where I am pursuing a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. Some day I hope to specialize in Pediatrics with a focus on physical disabilities!