Built on volunteer efforts, Special Olympics bring smiles and empowerment to UC Davis

UC Davis celebrates Special Olympics with opening ceremony

Athletes and organizers praise the opportunities offered by the Special Olympics as the opening ceremonies are held at UC Davis, Friday, June 22, 2018.
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Athletes and organizers praise the opportunities offered by the Special Olympics as the opening ceremonies are held at UC Davis, Friday, June 22, 2018.

Hundreds of athletes from all across Northern California streamed through the entryway at the UC Davis Pavilion on Friday, wearing matching T-shirts, holding signs, waving streamers and high-fiving law enforcement officers standing on either side of them — the Special Olympics Northern California Summer Games had begun.

Over 1,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities are competing this weekend in bocce, tennis, track and field, and swimming at UC Davis for the Summer Games. According to Tyler Krochmal, communications manager for the Special Olympics, the competition gives athletes the opportunity to shine in whatever sport they play.

"A lot of (athletes) are told they can't do things. We're all about what they can do." Krochmal said.

In addition to offering yearlong sports programming for over 20,000 athletes, Special Olympics Northern California also offers health screenings and promotes inclusion on school campuses.

The Summer Games host many returning athletes. Some have been attending for 20 years. This summer is athlete Phillip Gonzales' seventh year competing.

"We meet friends, it's a way for me to stay motivated, it's good exercise (and) keeps me involved in the community," Gonzales said. Through the program, he's met new friends and gained confidence in his day-to-day life. And for the past two years, Gonzales has been the emcee for the opening ceremonies.

For athletes like Gonzales, the Summer Games can be a empowering space. Krochmal has watched many shy, nonverbal athletes blossom on the field as they compete as part of a team, push themselves and earn recognition for their hard work.

And the confidence they build on the field, or in the pool, or on the court, translates to the rest of their lives, Krochmal noted.

"They take that same pride in what they do on the court, and take it into (things like) a job interview," he said.

The Summer Games is the largest event Special Olympics Northern California sponsors, and it is almost entirely volunteer-run. A large proportion of the volunteers are local law enforcement officials across the region. For nearly a month, over 3,000 law enforcement members have been running a torch across the region toward a cauldron at the opening ceremonies, raising thousands of dollars for the cause along the way.

Throughout the weekend, law enforcement officers will be handing out awards and talking with athletes.

"I think it's a great way for them to interact with the community," Krochmal said. "Our athletes look at them like superheros everyday, and to get an award from them — that's the highlight of their day."

In addition to the sports events, the Summer Games play host to a dance party Saturday night, where athletes can dress up, meet new people and reconnect with athletes they met in years prior.

Competitors can also benefit from the Healthy Athletes program. Trained medical volunteers are on-hand to give athletes a wide range of health education and screenings free of charge, according to program manager Caitlin Sheets.

Athletes will learn about topics like nutrition, dental care, stress management and can even have their eyesight checked. If they need glasses, the volunteers give them prescription lenses on the spot — or prescription goggles, if they swim or play a contact sport.

"This is a way we can help (athletes) both on the field and off the field," Krochmal said.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, which started in Chicago but now has programming in more than 100 countries. In Krochmal's eyes, the longevity of the organization is due entirely to the happiness it brings to athletes and volunteers.

"Joy is something Special Olympics is built on," Krochmal said. "You never leave a Special Olympics event without a smile."