Indiana Special Olympics Athletes Compete in US Games


The United States Special Olympics looked a lot like the real Olympics. Last week, players lit torches during the opening ceremony before thousands of athletes battled it out in front of 100,000 spectators in Orlando, Florida. Some athletes have even been interviewed by ESPN and Good Morning America.

However, the atmosphere was different. There were no tears of anger, sore losers or bitter rivalries. Athletes competing against each other ended up as friends. A volleyball match ended with the winners sharing their medals with the losers.

“It was the most inspiring thing I have ever witnessed in my life, and I have participated in many sports competitions”, Monroe County Special Olympics said coach Mark Norris.

Among the athletes from across the country were three from Monroe County – Amanda Wilson, who won silver in bocce, and Justin Wilson and Jeffery Phillips, who won gold in softball. For them, the US Games were the pinnacle of their Special Olympics experience, which shaped their lives for the better.

Justin Wilson has been a part of the Special Olympics since he was a kid growing up in Greene County. It was never really about winning, he said, but more about the lifelong friends he made and proving to himself that he can accomplish anything he wants. But winning the gold brought emotions he had rarely felt before.

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“I felt really emotional because I had never done this before,” he said. “I started crying, my mum started crying, my dad was really happy for me. … It’s really emotional to see all these people get up there and win all these championships.

What is Special Olympics?

Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities, with more than 4 million athletes, coaches and volunteers worldwide. In Monroe County, there are 117 athletes and about 50 coaches, county coordinator Denise Brown said.

Anyone 8 years of age and older who has been identified by a professional as having developmental disabilities, cognitive delay or significant learning disabilities can participate, according to the Special Olympics website. Most athletes are 19 or older.

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The organization is largely run by volunteer coaches and sports partners. Almost everyone involved, except for some higher-level employees, is unpaid, Norris said. Many, like him, devote most of their nights and weekends to athletes.

Opportunities such as participation in the USA Games are only possible through donations and fundraising, Norris said. Indiana Special Olympics raised nearly $10,000 through his Polar Plunge fundraiser last year.

Every four years, Special Olympics holds its US Games national competition at a different venue. Phillips said he felt honored to have been chosen to represent Indiana this year.

“The Hardest Working Athletes in the World”

Special Olympics in Monroe County has grown significantly throughout Norris’ decades of volunteerism. For years the county bowling team occupied one or two lanes and there was no football team.

Now there are two football teams, and bowling practices take up most of the lane. Athletes from other counties, including Greene and Lawrence, travel to Monroe County to compete in sports they don’t have, such as golf.

Korey Brock, left, Brian White, Justin Wilson and Jeffery Phillips won gold in their unified softball division at the Special Olympics USA.

Most athletes compete in multiple sports throughout the year. Phillips, who has been a Special Olympics athlete since growing up in Bloomington, plays softball, bowling, basketball, volleyball and football. He also coaches. That’s about all he does outside of washing machine work at Indiana University, he said.

Many Monroe County athletes spend their free time working out when they’re not training, Norris said.

“We’re talking about the hardest working athletes in the world,” he said. “I’ve coached many other sports, not just Special Olympics sports. … But the thing is, with these guys, there’s just total determination. You tell them to do something and they do it.

The most rewarding part, Norris said, is the social aspect. Many athletes don’t have the same opportunities to make friends as people without intellectual disabilities, he said. He met several athletes who rarely leave their homes otherwise.

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Once athletes join Special Olympics, they typically stay there for most of their lives and form lifelong friendships.

Amanda Wilson said she made almost all of her friends through Special Olympics. It’s also how she met her boyfriend, who she’s been dating for about eight months. She also became close with her trainer and unified partner, Mary Albanese. They have known each other for about 15 years.

“It’s a whole thing that’s so much more than just training,” Albanese said. “You really have to work so they can trust you and know that if something happens they can come to you and not have to worry.”

Albanese said the coaches and volunteers get as much out of the program as the athletes. The athlete’s positive attitude and dedication to her sport is humbling, she said.

“They just don’t stop and they push to do whatever they can,” she said. “For them, life is good. That’s how they see it. That’s how everyone should see it.

Contact Christine Stephenson at [email protected]

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