By Heather Bennett
“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” is the athlete’s oath of the Special Olympics. We have several brave athletes here in Walton County working hard and competing in their sport to make it to the state, national and world competitions.
The Special Olympics is such a great opportunity for these athletes who are usually left out of that we deem “normal” sports and sporting competitions. Nancy Simpler, Special Olympics Walton County Director explained that “Choose to Include” is one of their bigger tag lines. “That’s what we want to do. It’s including these folks in everything we’re doing. We have a lot of unified partners that get to understand what an intellectual disability is. It’s changed a lot of mindsets.”
Nancy said that athletes compete at a county competition and then move to an area level competition (Walton County being in Area 1 with Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa Counties) to qualify for state, and there compete to qualify for nationals. “You have to have went to a state competition three years in a row and be very competitive in your sport,” said Nancy, explaining how athletes qualify for nationals. “We had two athletes that went to nationals in July.”
Right now our local athletes are gearing up for the State Championship in basketball held at The Big House in Tavares the first weekend in February. The State Summer Games will be held in May at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando. It has also been announced that Orlando will host the 2022 Special Olympic USA Games, which is the national competition.
It’s important for our community to get involved and support our athletes. People can attend the Special Olympic competitions and cheer them on. All events are open to the public and are free to attend.
Another way to support our athletes is local fundraising. Publix is holding their Torch Icon Campaign from January 5th – 13th. “They are actually doing it the whole month,” says Nancy. “You can donate to them online. You can donate and they give you digital coupons as a thank you.” The money raised goes directly to support the competitions and the athletes. “We don’t charge our athletes for anything,” said Nancy. “All fundraising is to take care of the area games and our state competitions, for travel and food. It takes care of all that and buys uniforms.”
Another fundraiser is the national Law Enforcement Torch Run. Their mission is to raise awareness and funding for the Special Olympics. Members of law enforcement and Special Olympic athletes carry what is known as the “Flame of Hope” into the opening ceremonies of local, state, national and world games. This year’s local leg will be on March 29th at 8:00 am and will begin at Frank’s Corner at 929 US HWY 90 W in DeFuniak Springs. The run will be a mile and a half and end on the front lawn of the Walton County Courthouse. People are encouraged to come out to cheer on the runners.
The final leg of the torch run in Florida will lead into the opening ceremonies at the State Summer Games on May 17th at Champion Stadium at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. “They fill the stadium with police department cars and they have fireworks, and Mickey Mouse is there,” said Nancy. The opening ceremonies are truly on an Olympic scale. “We hope people will come to see it,” Nancy added.
For more information on how you can support or get involved with the Special Olympics of Walton County please visit www.specialolympicsflorida.org/walton for more information.