More than 1,600 athletes from all over Florida are visiting USF this weekend to participate in the Special Olympics State Games.
They will compete in six different events, including track and field, soccer, volleyball, tennis, cycling and bocce (Italian lawn bowling).
Opening ceremonies, which will include a fireworks display, parade and VIP guest speakers, begin Friday night at 8:30 at the USF Soccer Stadium and is open to the public.
The games take place today from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and continue Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closing ceremonies are Saturday night at 7:45.
According to Amy Dugan, vice president of public relations with Special Olympics Florida, the athletes had to win local and regional games in order to participate at this level.
“(The moral of the athletes) is extraordinary,” she said. “They’ve trained for two months just to get to the first competition and must have won two more competitions just to get here. They’ve been hoping and working at this for four months at minimum.”
There are no age restrictions. Athletes’ ages range from 8 to 80. Also, some events, such as soccer, combine athletes with intellectual disabilities and ones with physical disabilities on the same team.
“It not only gives our athletes a more advanced competition experience, but also a great socialization opportunity to make friends,” Dugan said.
Al Gentilini, USF Campus Sports director, has helped officiate and coach Special Olympics and other smaller competitions. Gentilini said the players compete to the best of their ability and are all very competitive.
“I find (the games) refreshing,” Gentilini said. “The athletes are taught to never say anything discouraging and they are always cheering each other on.”
So far there are more than 1,400 volunteers registered along with more than 1,800 coaches and parents attending to watch the games.
Volunteers may show up on the day of the events and do not need any sports’ experience or a background in working with people with disabilities. Duties may include timing events, keeping score, passing out lunches and escorting athletes to make sure they get to their venues.
“Most volunteers come once, get hooked and come back every year because it’s such a positive atmosphere,” Dugan said. “Everyone comes with such a great attitude and has so much fun.”
USF junior Jeffrey Jones volunteered last year and will be volunteering again this year.
“Last year was such an enlightening experience,” Jones said. “I found that, even though they are handicapped, the people who compete in the Special Olympics have the same drive and determination as anyone else. This really inspired me to come back this year.”
Dugan said USF has helped build a role in constructing this program, which has been held here for the past five years and plans to host next year’s games as well.
“It is going to be fantastic,” Dugan said.