By Sierra Whitten
Bouncing balls, swishing shots, and smiling faces took over the Turner Center last weekend when Special Olympics of Mississippi hosted its annual Spring Games at the recreation center. The Spring Games brings over 400 athletes with special needs together for a day of hoops.
Athletes from over 17 counties across Mississippi traveled far and wide for a day of tough but friendly competition in hopes of scoring an Olympic medal. Ole Miss’s own special Olympics team ended the day sporting bronze medals. The day consisted of a tournament of 5 versus 5 basketball games between traditional teams and unified teams. Unified sports teams join athletes with and without special needs on a team based on age and ability.
“It’s the spirit of camaraderie, and when they’re on the court nobody cares who does and doesn’t have an intellectual disability. It’s just the shared love of sport and competition and that’s what gets me up every day,” said Special Olympics Mississippi President/CEO Monica Daniels, who has been with the program for three years and has spent the last 27 years working with non-profit organizations. Her hope for the day was that everybody was exhausted at the end of the day, leaving it all on the court with smiles on their faces.
Special Olympics of Mississippi has been competing with athletes on the state-wide level for over 50 years. Since its start with only 150 athletes in 1968, Special Olympics Mississippi has grown to serve over 4,000 athletes across the state. Being a Special Olympics College, the University of Mississippi opened its doors to the spring games four years ago and has provided a fantastic experience ever since, according to Daniels.
The athletes, led by volunteer coaches, have practiced weekly at local gyms, churches, and schools in preparation for the Spring Games. Once they qualify to come to a state-level competition, the Special Olympics Mississippi office hosts the tournament at no cost to athletes or their families. There was also a special skills competition for 100 athletes who weren’t a part of a full team but still wanted to show off their techniques.
“I love all of our state-level competitions because I get to see the athletes come from all the local areas across the state and they work really hard to get here,” said Daniels. “So, on days like today when you walk across the court and see these athletes making baskets that they never made before because they trained a little bit harder this time it’s so fulfilling to see.”
Parents and friends traveled from every inch of Mississippi to crowd the stands and cheer the athletes on. Team members passionately moved up and down the court sinking the ball back-to-back. The sportsmanship on the court was alive and well. When one player looked defeated after missing a shot, his teammate quickly got the ball back to him, lifted his chin, and encouraged him to try again.
In addition to the high energy fun, SO Mississippi also offered a ‘Healthy Athletes’ screening for those who were competing for the day. Volunteer health care professionals led free health screenings in a fun, relaxed environment that offset the anxiety people with disabilities often face during a doctor’s visit, Daniels said.
Along with athletes and supporters, there was also an outpouring of volunteers working on the court and behind the scenes to ensure that the tournament was a success.
“We could not do any of this work without strong volunteer leadership,” said Daniels. “I hope that events like these will continue to inspire us all to work harder to be inclusive every day.”
To volunteer for next year’s spring games or any other special Olympic events visit specialolympicsmississippi.org.