GREENVILLE — The first 1968 International Summer Games in Chicago, Illinois, began the Special Olympics movement. Five decades later, the Special Olympics is returning to Chicago, to launch the year-long global Special Olympics 50th Anniversary celebrations in July 2018.
North America has more than half a million athletes, participating in all 32 sports offered by Special Olympics, according to special olympics.org. Special Olympics is dedicated to empowering individuals with intellectual disabilities to become physically fit, productive and respected members of society through sports training and competition, according to the organization.
The Darke County Special Olympics is celebrating its 40th year, beginning in 1978, with Sue Wilson as its original director. According to Greenville City School District third/fourth-grade Physical Education Teacher and Darke County Special Olympics Director Cindy Rose, it started with about eight athletes that participated in a track and field event in Dayton, Ohio. The following year, the first Darke County Special Olympics Track and Field event took place.
Since Rose moved to Darke County, in 1994, she said she has been involved with the Darke County Special Olympics, and became volunteer director in 2001. She attributes the program’s success and longevity to the community support and organizational support, such as: the schools, the YMCA, Person Centered Services, Inc. and the Darke County Board of Developmental Disabilities connections.
“I tell people, not every county is like this,” she said. “We operate on all volunteers and donations. It’s community-bottom line-that makes this possible.”
In addition to the community collaboration, Rose said she enjoys seeing the connections between the athletes. Some of them are life-long.
“Our athletes representing Darke County are truly family and have that connection,” she said. “In addition, when we do activities that compete against other counties, and we do it year after year, they develop friendships. Even into adulthood, some of them still choose to participate, and enjoy seeing the athletes they know.”
One athlete, Stewart Spille, 25, has been participating in Special Olympics since he was eight, the youngest age one may participate. He graduated from Franklin Monroe. He has been on the basketball team for at least 10 years, and plays center and power forward. He is also a member of the softball team.
“Basketball is my favorite, since I have been around it more,” he said. “I like shooting hoops, playing a game of one-on-one and winning. Cindy is a good coach, with the plays she brings up. I like the group of people, and the friends I have made in Special Olympics. In Darke County, we are friendlier, and it’s a lot of fun.”
The Darke County Special Olympics programs include: Basketball, Adult Cheerleading, Swimming, Track and Field, Softball, Bowling, Golf and the newest program Weightlifting/Power lifting. Golf is the only unified program in the Darke County Special Olympics, meaning athletes with disabilities pairing in teams of two, with athletes without disabilities. The Track and Field is the biggest event, with about 300 kids participating from the schools, she said.
In addition to the normal competitions, some athletes compete at a higher level. In the past, athletes have participated in the Special Olympics USA Summer Games, which is the biggest state event.
“Out softball program is pretty successful at the state tournament, so we typically have athletes chosen to compete in the national games,” Rose said. “That is coming up this summer in Seattle, Washington. We make the commitment to pay for the entry fees. That is an exciting experience, as sometimes it is our athletes first time to fly.”
Rose said she would not volunteer her time if she did not enjoy her involvement with Darke County Special Olympics. She added that Darke County stands out from the rest.
“We conduct ourselves in a manner of respect and compassion, and that is what I am most proud of,” Rose said. “With athletic opportunities come fans, who don’t always react appropriately. We treat each other and others with kindness, respect and compassion. I try to tell people, it is just not like that in every county. It goes to show what Darke County is really like.”
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