Thousands of family members, friends and volunteers will be rooting for some of Florida’s most extraordinary athletes at the 33rd annual Special Olympics State Summer Games at USF this weekend.
“All the top winners of the state are coming to compete here,” said USF student and event volunteer Erin Smalley.
According to a press release from the Special Olympics of Florida, Mayor Pam Iorio has proclaimed April 29 as Special Olympics Day in honor of the games.
“Since the beginning of Special Olympics Florida, USF has played a role in hosting our games and helping that program build,” said Amie Dugan, vice president of public relations with SOF. “Over the past 30 years, USF has hosted both state-level competitions and countless local and area competitions.”
An excellent location for the Special Olympics, USF hosts a multitude of available parking spaces, dining facilities and athletic areas all within close proximity to each other. “So not only is it more fun for the athletes, they have a greater chance to watch the other competitions, the other competitors, and it’s a greater chance to socialize,” Dugan said.
With an estimated 3,000 athletes, this summer’s games should be one of the largest USF has ever hosted, Director of Campus Recreation Eric Hunter said.
Athletes of all ages will be competing in track and field events, bocce, cycling, soccer, gymnastics, tennis and volleyball. In team sports, such as volleyball and soccer, some teams will be comprised of half mentally or physically handicapped persons, while the other half consists of those who are not.
“The overall goal is for the unified (non-handicapped) players to try to place the special Olympians in conditions where they can succeed,” Hunter said.
From 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, an opening ceremony will be held at the USF Soccer Stadium to commemorate the games. This ceremony will feature the last leg of a torch run that began earlier this month in Tallahassee. Policemen from all over the state are participating in the run, and will caravan into Tampa for the opening ceremony. “For the last bit, there will be one of the special Olympians carrying the torch heading to the Soccer Stadium,” Hunter said.
Christina Haundley, a mentally handicapped student at USF, will be part of the ceremony. and will sing the national anthem.
“She’s so good,” Aursland said. “If you closed your eyes and heard her sing, you would think she sounded like Christina Aguilera.”
During the past month, students from Hunter’s Major Works/Major Issues class have been working to recruit volunteers for the games.
According to Hunter, the goal is to have as many volunteers as there are athletes. So far, about 2,000 volunteers are registered.
A majority of USF volunteers from the USF branch of the Council for Exceptional Children will be helping out at the medical village, President Kim Aurlsand said. Within the village athletes can receive first aid and dental as well as visual check ups.
Volunteers can also play a more active role in the games themselves.
During last month’s regional games, Smalley was able to assist one of four athletes, who were selected to participate in a torch run where each ran a quarter of a track field.
“I had to stand there with one of the athletes and tell him what he had to do, and he was so excited and appreciative … I had a lot of fun doing that,” she said.
By being a buddy for the athletes, volunteers help to make sure the athletes get to their events on time and drink enough water. Cheering is also a large part of being a buddy.
The Olympic events will take place this Friday and Saturday. Anyone willing to volunteer can do so on either day by showing up and registering.
“When you actually get to work with the athletes, they are a lot of fun,” Smalley said. “And it makes you feel good at the end of the day.”