CATOOSA — Special Olympics Head Coach Shelley Gibson of Catoosa Public Schools couldn’t be more proud of her student Olympians and their partners, who played their hearts out at the Special Olympics Soccer Tournament and Golf Tournament.
The Special Olympics Soccer Tournament took place on Oct. 12 at the Owasso Soccer Complex where the Catoosa Indians went head-to-head against teams from around the state. The extraordinary students and their partners took home two silver medals and a bronze medal.
“The best thing about the bronze team, one of my little guys who hadn’t been able to get in the game yet, he scored the tying goal, and with only five seconds left in the game, he scored the winning goal,” Gibson said.
The annual state tournament is unified, meaning that three Special Olympic Athletes are paired up with two regular students called partners, and they play together as a team on the field.
“Unified sports is supposed to bring people together and unify them,” Gibson said. “The idea is that you can’t tell which ones are the athletes or the partners because they’re competing together. We have an awesome group of regular students who compete with us and support our athletes.”
Partners would pass the ball to the athletes during the game and let them score the goal, never once scoring a point for themselves, Gibson said. Some of the partners even feel more at home with her students than they do with their usual peer groups.
“They’re friends, they’re helpers, they’re encouragers,” Gibson said describing the partners. “I’ve had partners over the years who come back and say, ‘I wish I got into this earlier because your kids accepted me for who I was. I didn’t have to try to be somebody that I’m not.’ I have students that just want to come in here and hang out because my kids are more accepting. In the normal population, that doesn’t always happen.”
All of Gibson’s partners play on a varsity sports team at Catoosa High School, which gives the Olympians a sense of belonging and allowing them to display their school pride while playing alongside their peers.
The partners could all agree that working with the students makes their day more enjoyable.
“I wanted to be in the Special Olympics because it seemed really fun and I wanted to help the kids,” Partner Aaliyah Harvey, Catoosa High School junior, said. “We always have a good time because they brighten up your day.”
The relationship works both ways and is beneficial for the students and the partners. New friendships have been made through the program and a partner described them as being one big family.
“When doing this type of thing, it actually forms a lot of friendships,” Senior Edgar Garcia said. “With one of them, he added me on SnapChat and talks to me on a daily basis. Something like that really brightens up my day, and it helps them out a little bit, you know just in case, he doesn’t get to talk a lot at home.”
While working with the Olympians, partners said they learned a lot about themselves in the process.
“For me personally, it taught me more about leadership and friendship and learning how to take time to see what happened in someone else’s day,” Garcia said. “It taught me to be nice and courteous to people and how it reflects upon you.”
Junior Jake Howard is both a partner and a brother to one of the Special Olympians. Howard said it’s fun being able to hang out with his brother on and off of the field.
“I not only get to go home and spend time with him but I get to spend time with him at school,” he said. “If I don’t show up to school, he’ll ask about me. We have a little rivalry type deal where he’ll try to one up me in practice. He’s just really fun to hang out with.”
At the end of the day, the partners said they want the students to walk away knowing that they can be who they truly are around them and to not feel embarrassed for having special needs.
“I want them to know that they can be themselves and be who they want to be and not to have to hide because they feel like they’re different,” Junior Chance Kelley said. “They can express themselves and be themselves.”
Not only did the athletes win medals and trophies, but they also brought home the title Special Olympics Unified Champion School for their
district. Schools that demonstrate commitment to inclusion by meeting 10 national standards of excellence are designated as a Unified Champion School. Catoosa is one of three schools in the entire state to be awarded the honor.
There are about 18 athletes, as well as 25 active partners in this year’s Special Olympic games. Gibson said it was an honor to receive the ranking and thanked the partners who helped her student athletes along the way.
The same students also competed in the Special Olympics Golf Tournament on Oct. 16 at Mohawk Park in Tulsa where they went up against about four other teams from around the state.
Six Olympians ranked in first place, five in second place and four in third place.
“Special Olympics, it’s more than just track and field,” Gibson said. “We do so many different sports and it keeps them active and involved. It gives them a sense of belonging to their school when they’re able to compete.”
Once a week, the students practice at the golf course in preparation for the Olympics. In the tournament, the special students performed golf skills like hitting, pitch shots, short putt and four Olympians played nine holes.
Gibson described the Olympics as more of a competitive sport rather than a recreational one. She reminds the students that the games are all about sportsmanship.
“They’re always good sports, but they do it for the competition,” Gibson said. “The whole idea is to remember the spirit of the game.”
The special students compete in about 9 to 10 Olympic sports throughout the year and will be playing in a Special Olympics basketball tournament Nov. 4.