By Ari Bird
Greg Jones’ face beamed with pride as he dribbled the ball and took a shot at the hoop during practice. His walker did not inhibit him from participating in a regional basketball tournament, made possible by Santa Cruz’s chapter of Special Olympics.
The Special Olympics program has provided athletic training and competition opportunities to more than 2.5 million people with disabilities in over 165 countries. The program began with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who started a summer day camp for people with intellectual disabilities at her home in 1962.
For Jones and other athletes, the program thrives not only on the enthusiasm of adult and children athletes, but also on the support from many volunteers, including coaches, students, community members, and members of the athletes’ families.
“I like it because of the people. The coaches are nice,” said Jones, who has been a participating athlete in Special Olympics for over 10 years.
Jones proudly said the minute he gets home, he often puts on his medal from a past tournament.
The Special Olympics Program in Santa Cruz is experiencing vast expansion. When the student-run UC Santa Cruz Special Olympics Team was created in 2001, eight athletes participated. The numbers have since increased to well over 20 participants.
The UCSC program has also combined with the local city chapter to make a stronger team, explained Paul Stanfield, regional sports manager of Special Olympics in Santa Cruz.
Stanfield said spring quarter is always a busy one for Special Olympics. Five full-sized sports teams are in session, including track and field, tennis, aquatics, and volleyball.
He believes the Special Olympics program is a healthy way for people with disabilities to interact with other members of the community.
“Sports are a good way to do that,” Stanfield said. “Once [people with disabilities] get to a certain age, there aren’t many programs for them.”
Worldwide, Special Olympics provides other means of support for people with disabilities. Through the Athlete Leadership Program, disabled athletes often get the opportunity to serve as spokespeople, coaches, officials, and on boards of local organizing committees. Special Olympics also runs the Healthy Athletes program, which focuses on developing healthy habits that will increase the athletes’ abilities to train and compete.
The Special Olympics Program also runs a number of research evaluations seeking to provide better understanding of the various issues surrounding disabilities.
According to a survey posted on the Special Olympics website, 80 percent of participants’ family members have perceived improvements across the board in the areas of self-confidence, social skills, friendship, health and sports skills.
Chrissy Jardin, a fourth-year psychology and legal studies major, is a program director for the UCSC Special Olympics team.
Jardin stressed the importance of spreading knowledge about the program throughout the campus and the community. She said many students aren’t aware of the program and never get the chance to experience the benefits it brings to athletes and volunteers.
“We are an organization that’s always looking for volunteers,” Jardin said. “It makes you feel really good after coaching.”
During a typical practice, depending on the sport, athletes usually stretch, participate in some drills, and play practice games. They always end in a huddle, chanting the official Special Olympics motto: “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
To get more information and locate a program, visit the Special Olympics Website at http://www.specialolympics.org/Special+Olympics+Public+Website/default.htm