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Special Olympics Colorado: Building Confidence And Community Amidst The Pandemic

Raphael Avery ready to play soccer at a Special Olympics Colorado Tournament
Courtesy Elizabeth Lichtenstein
Raphael Avery ready to play soccer at a Special Olympics Colorado tournament.

Special Olympics Colorado has been providing access to adaptive sports for people with developmental disabilities for more than five decades. In a typical year, the organization serves more than 15,000 athletes across the state with hundreds of practices, competitions and events, in 21 different sports.

In the last year, Special Olympics Colorado has been forced to make significant adjustments in order to carry out safe events. This weekend, the organization will host the Winter Sports Champions Highlight Show, a virtual showcase for the 2021 sports season.

Colorado Edition’s Alana Schreiber spoke with Megan Scremin, the CEO and president of Special Olympics Colorado, about the unprecedented season and upcoming event.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alana Schreiber: Now, it seems like the pandemic might provide a dual challenge for the Special Olympics. Not only are you forced to adapt for COVID precautions, but I imagine that some of your athletes might be immunocompromised or just face more risk factors. How do you work to mitigate those risks and provide safe programing?

Megan Scremin: Safety is and always has been our first priority. Way back in March, we did suspend in-person practice right away, but immediately offered a six-week health and wellness program called Fit Five, because we really knew that for our athletes as much of a risk to their health, not having Special Olympics would be, it also is such a big part of their social and emotional lives and well-being. So we really wanted to make sure that we were there for our athletes.

As we've moved into the year and things have started to open or we've learned more about how to safely be able to offer things, we've eased back into sports. Always making sure that we're taking any state or county guidelines for making sure we're a level safer than what the county would allow for, because we do understand and recognize that some of our athletes may be more at risk.

The other thing that's been important is to ensure that we do have virtual offerings all the time and we certainly say if you do not feel comfortable, if you are at high risk, please do not join us for any of our in-person practices. But we have a lot of other things for you to do and ways to stay involved and engaged right from your home.

Tell me a bit about how you've changed certain events in the last year.

We can take our winter season as a perfect example. We were able to allow athletes to practice in their small group. But then when it comes to competition, we're doing a time trial-type competition where an athlete is assigned a specific time to be on the racecourse. They then make their runs and then we calculate their time. Those times are then used for division and awarding medals. So at no point does an athlete need to go be in contact with another athlete that they're competing against.

The other thing is that it makes the Champions highlight show that's coming up this weekend very exciting, because it is like an awards show where athletes and their families can find out right then and there how they placed within their particular race or event.

What does the Special Olympics do for the athletes in a year where we've been forced to sacrifice so much? Why is this so important to hold onto?

If there is one thing that this year has shown me, it is how vital our programing is. Our athletes gain confidence from participating. I mean, when you see yourself succeeding in or becoming healthier — it's not only you, but your community at large, because as our athletes gain confidence, they share their stories, become advocates for themselves, and it really does showcase to the entire community all of the amazing abilities of our athletes. It is truly an amazing community of people that are coming together for the love and joy of sport.

While Special Olympics Colorado has done a lot to provide safe and socially distant programming, the risks are still too great for many athletes. Raphael Avery is 11 years old and a regular Special Olympics athlete. He also has Down Syndrome, which puts him at higher risk for COVID-19, so he had to spend this year on the sidelines.

KUNC’s Rae Solomon spoke to Raphael, and his mother, Elizabeth Lichtenstein, about what the Special Olympics has meant to them, and when they hope to rejoin that community.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Rae Solomon: Raphael, I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about participating with the Special Olympics. Is that something you've done for a long time?

Raphael Avery: Yes, but no, because I was sick.

Elizabeth Lichtenstein: That's a good point, Raphael, you were doing a bunch of Special Olympics and activities and then you had your hip injury. And then we had to take a break. So that was a good answer.

Rae: You're showing me with your hands that the hip bone pulled out of its socket. That sounds painful.

Raphael: It's very painful. You have to be brave and powerful to be strong and strong.

Rae: And the Special Olympics, the basketball team that was part of your recovery?

Elizabeth: We had just started doing it, I guess, early that year, early 2020. He was cleared. We wanted to get back into all your sports. So we had the basketball. And in the summer in the summer, they were moving to soccer, the Special Olympics skiing, horseback riding, swimming...

Raphael: Football, track..

Elizabeth: In his year of healing after his surgery, it was like one thing after another. And then COVID is just yet one more thing. And so we locked ourselves down like everyone. But then when restrictions started loosening, we really didn't loosen the way other people did. Life has been cloistered here.

Rae: When your sports were canceled, were you sad?

Raphael: I wasn't sad. But a little bit mad.

Rae: Why were you mad?

Raphael: Because I miss it.

Rae: Raphael was telling me that it made him mad to lose those activities. As a mom, how has that impacted you?

Elizabeth: It's really frustrating because he's not getting the physical fitness he needs. I worry and I want him to heal and get strong. And the more you exercise, the more you can exercise. So even though I'm happy not to be driving everywhere, I really miss him being having sports and not having the whole responsibility on my shoulders to get him to move his body because it's so hard and he doesn't want to listen to me. And that's kind of a mom thing where your kids are always going to listen to the other teachers and the teenage coaches and friends.

Rae: When will you feel safe resuming some of those activities? When will you feel safe, maybe taking up Special Olympics again or some of those other sports?

Elizabeth: We're ready to play. And I'm really hopeful for the spring. Because if it's outside and if we take the proper precautions with distancing and washing our hands... I think as long as the trends are low in the community and as long as the CDC and the local county health requirements say it's OK and that we feel safe, that people are taking precautions, we will tip toe into it. And if we have to pull out because people aren't being careful, we will.

This conversation is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for March 11. You can find the full episode here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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