Headquartered in Jefferson City, Special Olympics Missouri works to assist mentally challenged athletes through training, competition, and education.
By participating in athletics, these individuals gain strength, focus, and determination as they not only work through physical challenges but intellectual ones as well. As the participants enhance themselves through sports, the organization is also proud to help them by offering health, leadership, wellness, and educational opportunities.
“We have athlete leadership programs, where athletes can focus on interests that they have, ranging from public speaking to photography to I.T.” said President and CEO Susan Stegman. “A lot of people know that the Special Olympics is a sports organization, first and foremost, however, we also are the largest provider of health screenings as we help our athletes become healthier individuals which helps them on and off the field.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the organization had to shut down its normal programming last year in mid-March. To combat this, special at-home programming took its place, and athletes were provided their services virtually. There they could learn health education such as wellness pieces including the importance of hydration, stretching before practicing, and other kinds of counseling.
Serving over 16,000 athletes in Missouri, the organization held a Virtual Summer Games, which connected 125 of their athletes across the state. This eventually led to them being able to hold their State Competition and State Outdoor Games in Jefferson City as they worked closely under CDC guidelines.
“We created a different schedule for venues for the competition so athletes could be safe,” Stegman said. “About 255 contestants were able to compete in bocce, tennis, and flag football, and not one case of COVID-19 came out of that. I’m glad to announce that everyone was healthy throughout the event. Although, we did have a virtual sports camp that showed videos and emphasized education and training health and wellness as well. We were excited to have over 5,000 views on our virtual sports camp.”
Special Olympics Missouri also has a return to play protocol guideline that they are following closely with their international office as well as CDC recommendations. Currently, the organization is monitoring the counties where athletes are training and practicing every week as they are ready to implement the measures they need to return once given the all-clear. The Special Olympics will open post-COVID when it is safe to do so.
“We are scheduled to be back soon,” Stegman said. “Although, we have to revise this and look at the safety of our athletes because that is the number one priority. We have “Return to Play” information but we also have practice tips and protocols that we ask all of our volunteer coaches to adhere to so that our athletes can remain as safe as possible. We are moving forward in 2021, we are excited, and we are thinking about how to get back to in-person events. However, while our Spring Games have been scheduled our at-home programming will also continue.”
When the organization and its games completely return, Stegman has said that the first thing they will do is reach out to the community. She went on to state how grateful and inspiring it is to see the community care so much and be such great supporters.
“When we need volunteers from the community, they are always ready to step forward to do so,” she said. “When we were hit by the tornado, we had volunteers that moved us out into our alternate office in 48 hours. This community has always rallied around us whenever there is an opportunity. I know that people will want to do that again but like I said before we just want to make sure of when it's safe to do so.”
Another way for the community to support Special Olympics Missouri is by doing their Polar Plunge challenge. For the past 25 years, the Polar Plunge has been the most effective way for volunteers to support the athletes of the Special Olympics. Volunteers can plunge into cold water to raise funds for the games and, due to COVID, participants now have the option to perform their feat at home so long as they are filming and working alongside the organization. Their slogan is “freezing for a reason” and they are ready to show it as their Columbia Plunge is scheduled for March 13, their Lake of the Ozark Plunge scheduled for February 27, and Rolla performing their “Polar Bear Strut” on March 6.
“I just want to let the community know that the Special Olympics changes lives,” Stegman said. “It not only changes the lives of the people we serve as our athletes but also our volunteers who get involved. They see our athletes shine and exhibit joy with their friends and to be a part of a group and family that they can be a part of and be engaged in the community. Our athletes always can inspire those who get involved due to their spirit which can be seen in the oath they recite every time they compete, ‘let me win but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.’ It is such a great program, not only for athletes but for everybody that gets involved.”