Did you know that three athletes from William Chrisman High School will be competing in a national event this summer?
Three seniors from Independence are members of “MO Magic,” the Missouri state Special Olympics team that will compete at the USA Games in New Jersey in June.
And did you know that a teacher and paraprofessional from Chrisman and James Bridger Middle School will be coaching them in bocce (lawn bowling) at the USA Games?
Kathy and Mike Lowry will be coaching for the MO Magic team, and they recently made news of their own: The husband and wife team were named the 2013 Missouri Special Olympics Coaches of the Year in January.
But that’s the last thing they wanted to talk about.
The Lowrys instead chatted about how gratifying it is to coach people with special needs and dispelled misconceptions about the Special Olympics.
“We do it for the smiles, the high fives and when they come down the hallway with excitement,” said Mike. “They (Special Olympics athletes) have given more to me than I ever gave into it.”
Mike said his athletes are competitors in the truest sense of the word. He recalled a moment last summer during a track and field event at Hickman Mills High School when a Special Olympian was competing in shot put. After the athlete’s heat, Mike noticed that his competitor’s shot was “way out there.” Soon afterward, the athlete was instructing his rival how to properly throw the shot. It was something he will never forget, he said.
“My guy was showing how to coach,” Mike said.
“They play purely for the love of the game,” said Kathy. “There is no rivalry. It’s far more than just competing.”
But the Lowrys stress that during an event, Special Olympians perform at a high level, and the games shouldn’t be dismissed as merely a recreational opportunity.
“These kids are learning zone defense in basketball,” Kathy said. And while they’re learning the game, they are also learning life skills.
Kathy recalled an autistic student who struggled with close proximities and couldn’t even play defense in basketball as a result. But recently in his high school play he portrayed a pickpocket.
“His dad said to us, ‘that’s because he’s in basketball,’” Kathy said.
In order to participate in Special Olympics games, a person must have a cognitive impairment, not just a physical disability. The Lowrys say athletes join a team at varied skillsets, and it takes time to hone their abilities. Sports are not modified to a minimum set of basic rules, but are only slightly altered.
“We don’t do full court press in basketball for example,” said Mike. “The games are modified according to their motor skills. They learn within the best of their ability.”
There are 20 sports a Missouri Special Olympian can participate in, ranging from bowling to weightlifting. “We offer something in almost every sport,” Kathy said.
But, again, there are expectations when a challenged person joins the Special Olympics.
“We treat them like people and not like a disability,” said Kathy. “I set an appropriate expectation and they give me that.”
“These aren’t people with disabilities that happen to be athletes,” added Mike. “These are athletes that happen to have disabilities.”
Competing in the USA Games used to just take a coach’s nomination. But the rules have changed. Now to participate at the national Special Olympics event, a player must have been in the program for a minimum of five years, as well as earned a gold medal at a state level event. All three Chrisman athletes have been involved since middle school.
A Special Olympian at that caliber is critiqued on other factors as well.
“How well do they behave without mom and dad around?” asks Kathy. “We must know our athletes because we had emergencies before.”
Kathy and Mike said they evaluate an athlete’s behavior, especially in a social atmosphere, to determine whether they are suited to travel across the country to compete.
“How do they relate and get along with others? Do they have medical conditions? What’s their overall behavior like? We look at everything.”
The Lowrys hold a camp every summer to get athletes accustomed to the sports and provide extensive training for the more serious competitors. It also serves as a gauge to see if athletes can handle being away from home for an extended period in case they do progress to the national or international level. Mike and Kathy both have been to Greece and Ireland in the Special Olympics International Games, where Special Olympians from more than 180 countries get to compete.
In Ireland, Kathy and Mike said, Special Olympians are treated like celebrities and are incredibly supported.
“We had a female athlete with low cognitive ability where people asked for her autograph at the airport,” Kathy said. “She stood there waiting for more things to sign after they had left. She was floating.”
“Participants communicate, harmonize with others and sit with other competitors cheering and having a good time,” said Mike about how athletes act during the international games. He said you seldom see them mad at each other, but they will sometimes say “I’m with MY team” to a rival.
Despite the benefits of becoming involved in the Special Olympics, there is a shortage of coaches and mentors. The Lowrys say some people are deterred because it is completely voluntarily and a year-round commitment.
“Usually coaches are comprised of parents and teachers,” says Kathy.
Being a coach doesn’t require a special education background. A person just needs to be certified in the sport they intend to coach. “In the state of Missouri, you can become certified online or attend a two- to three-hour course over a weekend,” said Kathy, “as well as having CPR training for safety reasons, of course.”
Both coaches say teachers can especially benefit from coaching Special Olympics.
“It takes a great deal of patience with these kids, and you gain more of it,” said Mike. “It has certainly helped me with kids in the classroom. There is usually a missing piece on how to help them, but you find it out through coaching.”
There is still an uncertainty that could prevent the three Chrisman Olympians from heading to New Jersey for the USA Games. Each person, including the Lowrys, will need $1,500 for travel and accommodations. Although they are eligible to receive funding from the Missouri Special Olympics, they said it’s not a guarantee that the state committee will fund the expenses.
“They divide all accumulated funds to all teams across the state. There may not be enough left,” Kathy said. Meanwhile, they are continually setting up fundraisers and collecting donations in order to do so.
Above all, Mike had this to say about Special Olympics in general, “I just started to live better, be more respectful, and became more accepting.”