Though the term “Special Olympics” suggests the athletes in that division would like to be treated differently, nothing could be further from the truth.
On Friday afternoon, Special Olympians — athletes with intellectual disabilities — will compete in their own division in two races — the 4×100-meter relay and the 100-meter dash. In total, approximately 20 athletes from all over the East Coast will participate.
The Special Olympics has a long history at the Penn Relays. According to Annette Lynch, the Relays’ Special Olympics coordinator, the Special Olympics first began to participate in mainstream events like the Penn Relays in the mid-1980s.
Among the biggest supporters of the Special Olympics’ expansion in that period was Jim Santos, who was the Track and Field coach for the U.S. National Team in the early 1980s.
Lynch first joined the Special Olympics in 1989. Since then, Lynch says the organization has rapidly grown into one of the world’s largest non-profits, with 180 countries participating.
Additionally, many of the coaches for the teams participating in this year’s Penn Relays have been a part of the organization for years. Mack McGee, the coach of the Baltimore County team, has volunteered for the organization for 10 years.
McGee grew interested in the organization during college after watching his brother volunteer and quickly became a coach for Special Olympics basketball, soccer and track and field.
“It provided another way to get involved with something other than a financial donation,” McGee said.
Scott Otterbein, the coach of the Pennsylvania Montgomery County team, first became involved in the Special Olympics when his special-needs daughter, Lauren, began participating in basketball, soccer and track competitions.
Otterbein, a 1970 Penn Relays participant, was asked by one of his daughter’s coaches to help out and ever since has became highly involved in the organization.
“I love track and having run in the Penn Relays when in high school, I jumped at the chance to enter one of my track team members when I heard about the Special Olympics division at the Relays,” he said.
Like Lauren Otterbein, many of the Special Olympics athletes participate in several sports at a high level. For example, the defending 100-meter dash champion, Larry Mills, has also competed on the USA Special Olympics soccer team.
Mills, who ran the 100m in 12.14 seconds in last year’s competition, will also participate in the 4×100 relay. His team — St. Mary’s County — also includes last year’s second place finisher in the 100m, Avery Long, and is a heavy favorite to repeat its Relays title.
Lynch suggested the Special Olympics should not be viewed as an inferior division. Mills, Long and many of the other competitors have posted times that are not far off of those of competitors in other divisions.
“We have athletes who are so highly skilled that you wouldn’t know they have disabilities,” Lynch says.
McGee similarly believes the members of his team are not so different from competitors in the mainstream.
“Their struggles are going to be within their own world, no different than other athletes, where they’re pushing themselves into things that are challenging that maybe they haven’t done before,” he said.
The Penn Relays represents a unique event for most of the Special Olympians. Unlike most Special Olympics competitions, the Penn Relays has strict qualifying standards. All those competing on Friday must be between 18 and 29 years old and have run the 100m in 15 seconds or fewer. All of the relay teams have posted times of under 64 seconds.
McGee is deeply appreciative of the opportunity his team has to compete at a world-renowned track event like the Penn Relays.
“This allows them to participate in something that is a whole other level,” he said. “It’s just unique because it provides a stage that would never be available in most Special Olympics competitions.”
Lynch echoed the same sentiment.
“We want to be a part of so many other events where individuals in the mainstream are able to participate,” she said. “It’s a showcase for our athletes. It shows others that when given the opportunity for both training and competition, they will succeed.”
Though the Penn Relays may limit the number of Special Olympics competitors, the organization has tried to make the meet as inclusive and diverse as possible.
According to Lynch, past efforts to reach out to women and teams from other regions like Texas and Florida have been largely unsuccessful.
“I know we have female athletes who can run fast, it’s just about their programs getting support so they can send them,” she says.
This year, Samantha Munson of Franklin County, N.C., is an alternate to compete alongside the men in an open division.
Though the Special Olympics preaches inclusion and encourages its athletes to socialize with mainstream athletes, many of them choose to mingle with one another.
According to Otterbein, one of his athletes’ favorite parts of the experience is the practice the Relays organizes the night before with all of the other Special Olympians.
“The athletes don’t often travel far from home when competing so it is rewarding for them to meet people from other states and gain new friendships,” he said.
Otterbein also added that competitors will often stay in touch with their new friends when they return home via Facebook.
For many of the competitors, competing before almost 40,000 fans will be one of the greatest moments of their lives.
“It’s a unique opportunity for them not only to travel and see a beautiful campus, but participate in something they’ll remember for a long time,” McGee said.
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