"Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." This is the oath Special Olympic athletes open with at each sporting event they participate in.
The concept of Special Olympics began in 1962 when Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a day camp for people with intellectual disabilities in her own backyard.
Special Olympics was founded on the belief that people with intellectual disabilities can, with proper instruction and encouragement, learn, enjoy and benefit from participation in individual and team sports.
By 1968 the movement had grown quickly and the first Special Olympics Summer games were held in Chicago's Soldier Field with 1,000 athletes from 26 states and Canada competing in athletics such and floor hockey, track and field, and aquatics.
In 2003 the Special Olympics World Summer Games were held in Dublin, Ireland, the first to be held outside of the United States.
The event featured 7,000 athletes from more that 150 countries participating in 21 sports. For the first time in Iowa history the International Summer Special Olympics for 2006 will take place in Ames.
To provide the most enjoyable, beneficial and challenging activities for athletes with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics operates worldwide in accordance with principles that encourage athletes to become part of the larger society as productive citizens.
The principles also encourage more capable athletes to improve their athletic skills and move into community programs where they can compete in regular sports.
Special Olympic programs at local and state levels follow the same principles, the activities are designed to broaden, enrich, and celebrate the moral and spiritual qualities of persons with intellectual disabilities which enhances their dignity and self-esteem.
In Cherokee area schools there are Special Olympic programs in place. The most recent sporting event involved bowling where area Special Olympians traveled to Sheldon to participate in the Northwest Area Special Olympics Bowling Competition, where winners would earn their way to the Iowa Special Olympics on Nov. 19 in Ames.
Cherokee Middle School students, Victor Ross and Cory VanRoekel earned first places in their divisions at the tournament and will be going to the state games.
There were several other Cherokee athletes who also placed well in the tournament. Washington High School entered a unified team of four athletes who place second out of the three teams from the northwest Iowa district.
The team consisted of Jennifer Halder, senior, Mitch Gravenish, junior, Page Anderson, sophomore, and Steve Ryherd, freshman. A pair from Roosevelt Elementary students also entered the tournament.
Charles Pickett, a second grader, placed 2nd and Curtis Belden, also a second grade student place 5th. Aurelia Community School also had an athlete in the tournament. Second grader, Shelby Bechtel, placed fourth.
LeeAnn Christensen has been the Special Olympics coach at Washington High School for the past 29 years. In the early 80's the Special Olympics organization began requiring coaches to be certified in each of the sports offered in their program.
As a result Christensen is certified in bowling, basketball, track and field, and tennis. To become certified a coach must attend a three hour training and spend ten hours working with Special Olympic athletes in the specified sport.
To be eligible to participate in Special Olympics student athletes must adhere to the same conduct and good grade rules as the other student athletes.
They must also be enrolled in a special education class to qualify as a Special Olympian or they can be determined as a unified athlete if they have more mild disabilities such as learning disabilities. The athletes must be at least eight years old and can participate on into adulthood.
Special Olympic events are generally divided by levels of ability, age group, and sex. Basketball is a good example of dividing participants by ability.
Christensen recalls having one athlete in a wheel chair who really only had good use of one arm. One of the abilities was measuring the number of dribbles per minute.
This student could dribble so fast that both Christensen and judges had a hard time keeping up with more than one dribble per second. He won the event hands down.
Christensen says one of the highlights and benefits of the athletes going to the state competitions is the opportunity to test their independence away from family.
Special Olympics as a whole helps them increase their confidence as a members of the whole student body because the events are something they are good at and enjoy.
Christensen enjoys coaching and teaching her students, they become like family and her role as teacher sometimes turns to mom. With no children of her own, she says it has been very rewarding for her over the years.