First published in the Nov. 12 print issue of the Glendale News-Press.
Scores, awards and records often determine an athlete’s progress. However, for Special Olympians, success is also measured in the intangibles — love, self-esteem, camaraderie, fun and fulfillment.
Special Olympics, the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities, provides free athletic and leadership programs to 4.4 million athletes in 170 countries and strives to promote physical activity, social connection, health education and public awareness.
At the local chapter of the international organization, Special Olympics Southern California, athletes enjoy year-round sports training, with an offering of 13 Olympic-style individual and team sports. This fall season, sports include golf, softball, tennis, volleyball and soccer.
Additionally, SOSC makes an impact in the lives of its participants on and off the field, playing a key role in their personal development.
Rounding out their fall season, SOSC soccer teams Lightning, Thunder and Storm have been practicing at Glendale High School, where the players continue their journeys.
Head soccer coach Kathy Leon has witnessed the growth of many athletes over the years, especially that of her 24-year-old son, Michael Leon. She said his personal involvement within SOSC programs has been transformative, opening him up not only to sports, but also opportunities for him to share his experiences through public speaking and taking on various leadership roles, including being an SOSC Global Messenger.
“Watching a boy who was very shy and not wanting to participate to him now competing, going to conferences, giving speeches and carrying the torch at the Special Olympic games is phenomenal,” she said. “Anytime I watch Michael and see how far he’s come, it’s a highlight for me.”
Kathy Leon, who coaches alongside her husband, Gabriel Leon, said she gets far more out of the position than she puts into it — a reward that she receives every time she steps on the field with her teams.
Although many athletes come to SOSC at varied points in their journey, stories like Michael Leon’s aren’t uncommon.
Paul Kim, 31, who was initially unsure of his ability to keep up with the speed of the other athletes, said he found his stride — and a sense of home — at SOSC after he settled in.
“I was so nervous during the games,” said Kim, who is on team Thunder. “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to compete with the others, because when I looked around, they were all so fast, running on by. After I started playing though, I thought it was so fun.”
The Special Olympics offers athletes a community to belong to, with sports being a wellspring of empowerment.
“In sports, it doesn’t matter if you have an intellectual disability or not,” said Michael Leon, a player on the Thunder team. “When you’re playing, you don’t worry about what you can or can’t do, you just do your best.
“No matter if you place 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, it’s all about having fun and having the courage to do something maybe you didn’t know you could do before,” he added.
Peggy Griffin, mother of 33-year-old Storm team member Kelsey Griffin, said SOSC provides a nurturing environment where individuals can be themselves, be challenged and thrive.
“The Special Olympics accepts everybody as they are,” Griffin continued. “It has helped Kelsey come out of her shell. Through this program, she has gained a lot more self-confidence, she has made life-long friendships and she can feel the love the coaches provide as well.”
Kinship is a common thread that intertwines the experiences of those that enjoy SOSC’s programming.
“What I like most about being a part of the Special Olympics is the competitiveness, getting together with friends and meeting a lot of people — I love them all,” Kim said. “We have friendship, family, teamwork and a lot of love. I love it here.
“Every time we play, I always clap my hands and say, ‘Come on! Come on! Let’s go!’” he added. “I cheer for all the players, they’re so amazing.”
Volunteer Amy Forster, 17, of team Storm, is president of Crescenta Valley High School’s Special Olympics Club. Her connection with the organization sparks joy for Forster, which she attributes to being in the company of her teammates.
“These athletes are some of my best friends,” Forster said. “I absolutely adore them. Their work ethic and overall happiness is infectious — you cannot be sad in this environment. You come in and everyone is motivated and happy to be there. I admire them so much for how they’re always cheerful and ready to play.
“They make me smile and hopefully I make them smile,” she added. “It’s a great community to be a part of.”
Much like the athletes working together, Griffin said SOSC has bonded parents and family members — fostering a source of connection and forming a network of loved ones, who are ready to step in when help is needed.
“The families, we call ourselves a little village,” she said. “We look out for each other and assist with transportation. There are some parents that don’t drive, so we cover for everybody and do what we can to support one another.”
As the Special Olympics athletes enter the gate and families set up chairs along the sideline, the GHS baseball field becomes a welcoming hub, where athletes put their soccer skills to the test, play as a team and connect with their peers. From start to finish, the athlete’s exuberant energy and love for the game is evident in their gleeful smiles and echoing laughter that can be heard from across campus.
Though there were not enough players to qualify these Glendale-area teams to compete in the fall games this year, their Olympic spirit isn’t lost.
The athletes and coaches, despite their distance, will continue to cheer on the more than 800 Special Olympians from across Southern California as they would their own team members — the true hallmark of what it means to embody sportsmanship, a quality the Special Olympics is proud to spread.
The Special Olympics fall games will be held today and tomorrow, Nov. 12-13, in Fountain Valley. For more information, visit sosc.org/fallgames/.