Sports

Special Olympics athletes benefit from caring volunteers

AUBURN - Special Olympics has two common misnomers, according to Drew Hendel, King County Region Sports Director for Special Olympics. The most common assumption people make is that Special Olympics is only for kids.

"A majority of our athletes are adults," Hendel said. "We refer to them as athletes."

The second misconception is that anyone who has a physical disability is eligible to participate in Special Olympics. Even Hendel was mistaken about this rule when he first got involved. He said athletes must have a cognitive disability if they want to participate. This means, for example, if someone is deaf but not mentally challenged, they are ineligible to play. He said a lot of the athletes in his program have both a physical and a mental disability.

On Sunday, two teams from the Snoqualmie Valley participated in the Special Olympics King County Regional Soccer Tournament at Auburn Game Farm Park. A total of 25 teams comprised of 250 athletes participated. The two Snoqualmie teams include a juniors' team of 8- to 15-year-olds called the Snoqualmie Valley Lions, and the masters' team, which consists of kids and adults age 16 and older, called the Snoqualmie Valley Sounders.

The Lions lost to the Renton Strikers early in the day, but seemed overjoyed after the game that they were even able to participate. One of the athletes got down on the dirt field and began doing push-ups and muscle-man poses in a show of excitement. The Lions later played the Federal Way Kickers, a team that player Michael Lawrence was wary of because he said he "didn't want to get dirty." (He was wearing his brand-new red and white uniform after all.)

This is the first year that Snoqualmie has participated in a soccer program. The Lions are coached by a 13-year Special Olympics coaching veteran from New Jersey, William Johnson. The Sounders team is coached by Greg Chelgren.

The teams practice each week during the season. Some of the special-needs athletes will even have the chance to play with competitors that are not mentally challenged in what is called the unified division.

"It's athletes with and without mental difficulties playing together on a team," Hendel said. He said this partnering of athletes helps to lessen the divide between the two groups.

"It's a conversation starter, it's a way to interact," Hendel said. "[The Special Olympics kids] have something to be proud of, especially when they are out of school."

The teams that finished in first, second, or third places received gold, silver and bronze medals, and others received ribbons. And all the teams, regardless of their placing at Sunday's event, will advance to the Special Olympics State Tournament on June 2 and 3 at Ft. Lewis in Tacoma.

Becky Kitz is a volunteer for both the Snoqualmie soccer teams and the bowling program. She said that the organizers of Alpine Days donated more than $3,000 to Special Olympics over the last two years, which helped the soccer teams buy new, red uniforms and bags.

Donations to Special Olympics can be made online at www.sowa.org, or sent directly to the regional office at P.O. Box 2933, Redmond, WA, 98052. For more information, call (425) 861-9790.

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