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Inspiring and perspiring: Special Olympics return to The Beach

Over a thousand athletes converge on CSULB as part of Special Olympics Competition.

Runners await the sound of the starting pistol during the Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games.

Kevin Flores

Runners await the sound of the starting pistol during the Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games.

Kevin Flores, Diversions Editor

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A huddle, a high-five, a celebratory hug—these are the moments of comradely that make the Special Olympics truly special.

“You laugh, you cry, you bleed with them,” said Penny Cook, whose daughter Laura took part in various track and field competitions. “Your teammates become family.”

The weekend event marked the 17th year that the California State University, Long Beach hosted the Special Olympics Southern California Summer Games. An estimated 1,100 athletes from San Luis Obispo to San Diego took over the campus’ athletic facilities. They competed in sports ranging from bocce to basketball to gymnastics.

SOSC president and CEO Bill Shumard, a former athletic director at CSULB, said the SOSC had recently extended its partnership with the university, which will host Summer Games through 2017.

The mission?

“To change lives for people with intellectual disabilities,” Shumard said.

He remembers one athlete who had his picture taken by a professional photographer at last year’s Summer Games. When the athlete’s mom later saw the picture she immediately started crying. She said it was the first time her son had ever smiled in a picture.

You’d be pressed to find a volunteer who didn’t have a touching memory to share.

Maureen Miller, the venue manager for rhythmic and artistic gymnastics, can’t help but tear up while recounting a hug she received earlier that day from gymnasts she’s known for 15 years.

“She came running towards me across the [gymnasium] floor. All she could say was, ‘I missed you.’ The relationship you have with these athletes is unlike anything else,” Miller said. “You can’t describe those kinds of moments.”

Gymnast and Global Messenger for the World Games, Debi Anderson, who’s been competing since graduating high school, said competing made her feel “very excited, like I could do anything.” Her favorite part of it all: Getting to wear a leotard.

Competing athletes range in age from 8 years old and up. And up is right. It wasn’t uncommon to see basketball players or swimmers in their golden years holding their own.

“It feels great. Once you’re in, you’re hooked,” said Lindsay Whitelock, standing near the edge of the pool in a swimming cap. She proudly listed off the events she had participated in, among them the 100m freestyle and the 25m butterfly.

Her aquatics coach, Adam Christin, said the best part about the Games was seeing the athletes blossom. “They come to you and sometimes they’re non–verbal and antisocial, but before you know it you start seeing them opening up and interacting with other people.”

Cook saw this kind of transformation first-hand with Laura, who’s participated in the Special Olympics for 28 years and who will be competing at the World Games in late July.

“She’s developed in so many different ways. She’s become more independent from mom and dad, she’s travelled and she’s become her own person,” Penny said.

Asked how competing in the Special Olympics made her feel, Laura, with gold medals dangling from her neck, simply said “happy.”

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