With a cup of coffee in his hand, Special Olympian Jason Whittaker was ready for his favorite event of the day, the relay race. “Y.M.C.A” was playing in the background and the spring sun reflected off of Whittaker’s sunglasses as he explained his strategy for the upcoming race.
Along with Whittaker, there were 175 athletes that competed in the 2019 San Diego Regional Athletics Competition Special Olympics held at PLNU April 6. The event had about 350 volunteers including PLNU students and faculty and community members. The Olympians competed in track and field events–shot put, long jump, relays and sprints. This was the 27th year that PLNU has hosted the Special Olympics.
According to the Special Olympics website, “Special Olympics is for people who are different because they learn new skills slowly. They are different in other ways as well. They have an intellectual disability, or ID.”
The event’s largest sponsor was Geico who donated $5,000. PLNU does not charge Special Olympics for using the field. Different departments at PLNU also donate money, food and other resources to the event. Many classes and departments also encourage their students to volunteer, like the Kinesiology Department, whose students helped the Olympians stretch and warm up before the events.
“The biggest challenge continues to be securing the volunteers and training them… Making [volunteers] comfortable with being uncomfortable is basically what the training is about. But they walk away from it overjoyed and with a great experience,” said Director of the Disability Resource Center and Tutorial Services Nichole Hope-Moore.
This was junior nursing major Alissa Greenlaw’s second year being a buddy. A buddy is a volunteer who is paired with an Olympian for the day and cheers them on at each event.
“It is a super fun way to make new friends. A buddy I had from last year remembered my name and said hi to me. It was really sweet,” said Greenlaw.
The planning, coordinating and execution of the event may be tiring, but similar to Greenlaw, Hope-Moore looks forward to seeing the athletes compete and feel accomplished afterward.
“The smiles on the athletes’ faces. All of the drama and the tears leading up to it are all worth it because the Olympians, even if they come in second or third place, they love to hear people cheering for them. Their genuine smiles are very rewarding for me,” said Hope-Moore.
Special Olympian Christopher Scott Johnson was a seasoned professional when it came time for his events. He held his head up high with two gold medals around his neck. One medal for shot put and another for softball throwing. This was his sixth year competing in the San Diego County Special Olympics.
“[The Special Olympics] has changed my life. It makes me a happier person,” said Johnson while inspecting one of his gold medals.