Some students ran, others walked, and a few were pushed in wheelchairs.
The success of Indiana’s inaugural Special Olympics Young Champions event in Seymour wasn’t measured in how fast each student could go, how high they could jump or how many points each participant could score.
Instead, winning was about being brave enough to try.
Fourth-grader Jed Findley, a student in Emerson Elementary School’s SOAR autism program, knew if he did his best in each event, then that’s all that mattered.
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“Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” Findley said, reciting the Special Olympics athlete oath before the games began Friday.
He later went out and gave his all, with the running events being his favorite. A smile never left his face.
Seymour was just one of five school systems in the state chosen to help launch the Young Champions program this year and was the first to conduct its games. Other communities piloting the program are Bremen, Logansport, Marion and Noblesville.
Michael Furnish, president and chief executive officer of Special Olympics Indiana, served as a special guest at last week’s event and said he was impressed by what he saw.
“In one word: Wow!” he said. “What we are seeing today goes way beyond our expectations for a first-time program.”
Mika Ahlbrand, director of special education for Seymour Community School Corp., said being able to serve as the first Young Champions site in the state is a huge honor.
“We are making history, and we are so proud of that,” she said. “It’s exciting to have another event to celebrate our students and to promote inclusion, and I think if you look around at what is going on, you will definitely see that. It’s a really special thing.”
The Young Champions program was open to all special needs students in preschool through fifth grade in Seymour Community Schools. Teams came from Cortland, Emerson, Seymour-Jackson and Seymour-Redding elementary schools. Redding served as the host school.
Furnish said the program was developed to improve the lives of those with disabilities in more ways than one.
“What we realized is the longer you wait to start learning the skills of a sport, the harder it is to do and the lower the ceiling of improvement,” he said. “We are also keenly aware of how health becomes a significant issue with people with disabilities, much of which can be prevented if they learn how to enjoy an active lifestyle.”
A total of 64 Young Champions competed Friday, with half participating in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. Before the games began, the teams paraded into the gym carrying banners. The Olympic fanfare played as they proudly marched around the room, while parents and teachers cheered and took pictures.
Activities for the day included running or walking over special hurdles, a team beanbag throw, an egg and spoon race, team bowling and a final run/walk relay.
Slight modifications or adaptations were made to each activity to fit the needs of every participant so they could be successful, Ahlbrand said.
The students had been training for the day since the beginning of the year in their adaptive physical education classes by practicing each of the skills. Teachers, aides and physical therapists worked with the students, who have physical or mental challenges.
Ahlbrand said participants practiced several hours a week, developing fine motor skills, improving self-confidence and learning rules of how to play different activities.
“Our goal is to offer as many different activities as possible to see if there is something they may be interested in pursuing,” she said.
Parent Jennifer Urbanski of Seymour said she couldn’t have been more proud of her son, Cael, a student at Emerson, and the other students who participated. She also said it was a huge step for the school system and the community in accepting and involving students with disabilities.
“He loved doing it,” she said. “I don’t know that he completely understood what the big deal was, but I was totally overwhelmed with emotions watching all of those beautiful children getting to have their own day.”
Urbanski said the event helped her son learn how to wait his turn and how to concentrate more. She hopes they offer the Young Champions program in Seymour again next year.
By participating now, organizers hope to prepare students for future participation in sports and competing in Special Olympics.
Special Olympics of Jackson County offers training and opportunities to play basketball and bowl and participate in the summer games. Special Olympics Indiana has a total of 24 sports in which athletes ages 8 to adult can compete.
“There is no upper level,” Furnish said. “We have athletes who compete in their 80s and 90s.”
Urbanski said her son enjoys playing sports and being with other children.
“I think he would love to do this more,” Urbanski said of her son’s involvement. “In his after-school therapy, they have been working on skills like hitting a baseball off of a tee and running the bases.”
For many of the students, including Cael, running was their favorite activity.
The ultimate goal of Young Champions is the inclusion of all students in school activities and unifying those with and without disabilities. Each of the Young Champions athletes was paired with a peer mentor from their school who helped them get ready and compete.
“We are seeing a great opportunity in schools today, with a willingness and readiness of having young people help,” Furnish said. “The day is truly unified. There are kids with and without disabilities participating, and I’m not sure when the day is over who is going to be better for it.”
The mentor students made sure the participants were safe and had a good time, and many of them formed friendships with the students they were helping. They held their partner’s hand, patted them on the back, gave high-fives and hugs and laughed and cheered them on.
A group of 24 Seymour High School athletes also attended to offer support to the younger students. Two years ago, the high school conducted its first Inclusion Revolution unified track and field meet, giving older students with disabilities the opportunity to compete in running and field events. It was such a success, the school hosted it again this year and plans to continue as long as there is an interest.
Furnish said by having parents attend the event, he hopes it shows them that it’s not about what students can’t do, it’s about what they can do.
“Hopefully, this creates some imagination in the parents’ minds about what is possible,” he said. “What we know is that these kids will become athletes if given that opportunity. When we give them an opportunity, they take advantage of it and grow from it.”
At the end of Friday’s event, all students were awarded medals for their participation and good sportsmanship.
“I think just all of the kids being together was a win, and seeing their faces when they finished each event was priceless,” Urbanski said.