In the weeks leading up to the Special Olympics Indiana Summer Games, Jackson County coordinator Crystal Ackeret received multiple text messages from athletes.
The messages all had a theme: The athletes were excited to return to competition.
The 2020 Summer Games was among the events canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Special Olympics programs around the state also lost out on competing in other sports throughout the year.
From June 11 to 13, however, they were back in action, competing in bocce, bowling, cycling, horseshoes, swimming, track and field or volleyball.
Bowling was the night of June 11 at Woodland Bowl in Indianapolis, while the other sports were June 12 and/or June 13 at venues in Terre Haute, including Indiana State University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
“After our season being canceled last year due to COVID, it has hard for everyone to contain their excitement to be headed back up to Terre Haute,” Ackeret said.
Jackson County had 10 athletes compete in track and field, four in bocce and six in horseshoes. They came home with eight gold medals, five silver medals, seven bronze medals and three fourth-place ribbons.
“I love seeing them proud of themselves for winning their event, but what I love the most is the way they cheer on the competition. They want everyone to win,” said Ackeret, who also coached the track and field team at Summer Games.
“I love the whole experience,” she said. “It’s like a huge family trip, eating dinner together on the way there, staying up late talking and laughing, getting to celebrate victories all day with each athlete, then heading home listening to the stories of how they won.”
In track and field at ISU’s Gibson Track and Field Complex, Jackson County’s gold medalists were James Knight in the softball throw, Nevaeh Ackeret in the 400-meter run, Haley Ackeret in the 100-meter dash, Owen Law in the mini javelin throw, Alysha Sandlin in the softball throw and Faith Osborne in the 25-meter assisted wheelchair race.
This was Knight’s first time going to Summer Games.
“Oh, really good. I did good. I was first,” he said. “I loved it. I love doing Special Olympics.”
The Ackeret siblings first went to Summer Games in 2019.
“I enjoyed our team getting together again for Summer Games,” Nevaeh said. “It was very hot when I ran, but I did my best and won gold.”
Haley easily won her race, sprinting from one end of the track to the other.
“When I was running to get gold, it felt like I was running really fast like The Flash,” she said, referring to her favorite superhero character.
The silver medalist was Derrick Martin in the 100-meter dash, and those earning bronze were Law, Sandlin and Becky Klosterman in the 100-meter dash, Martin in the softball throw and Charlotte Greasham in the 25-meter assisted walk. Also, Eric Jackson was fourth in the mini javelin throw.
“My race was good. I was in the lead, and I got to the end and I pulled something in my leg,” Martin said of his race.
He, however, didn’t let that take away from his first time at Summer Games, noting he enjoyed being around his teammates and meeting people from other programs around the state.
Bocce was conducted in an open field a block from the track complex.
Jackson County’s Tim Ashburn and Dale Hickman won their first match 7-6 but later lost 7-3, earning silver medals, while Kayla Kriete and Angel Roe lost both of their matches 7-5 to finish fourth.
Hickman competed in bocce for the fifth time at Summer Games, while it was Ashburn’s first.
“To sum it up, very close, very good team,” Hickman said of their first match. “I thought they were coming back to beat us, and we hung onto the lead and we won 7-6.”
Hickman and Ashburn led 2-0 in the second match but allowed a duo from Vanderburgh County to tie and then take the lead.
“He’s a pretty good athlete,” Hickman said of Ashburn, while Ashburn said, “It was good. He was a good partner.”
Bocce was coached by Donald Griffin II, a member of the county management team.
The horseshoes competition was conducted a few miles away from the ISU campus at Collett Park.
Jackson County’s Donald Bennethum and Leroy Deal earned gold medals, while Dennis England and Jeff Jones won silver, and Thomas Emly and Roger Hanner took home bronze.
Deal also won gold two years ago, and Bennethum said he was happy to take the top medal after getting silver in 2019.
Horseshoes was coached by Jim Shepherd, another member of the county management team.
In a typical year, Special Olympics Indiana would have had nearly 3,000 athletes and several thousand coaches, volunteers, Unified partners and supporters travel to Terre Haute for three days of competition at the organization’s largest annual event.
With health and safety protocols in place and some necessary adaptations to the typical format, this year’s Summer Games was smaller in scale but ranked as Special Olympics Indiana’s largest in-person competition since 2019.
Approximately 1,200 of the state’s 18,000 athletes participated, and county programs only competed one or two days. Plus, the opening and closing ceremonies were conducted virtually.
The theme of the 2021 Indiana Summer Games was “Be Brave,” an homage to the Special Olympics athlete oath, “Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt,” and a challenge to all of those willing and able to safely return to the playing field this year after so much time apart.
While attending Summer Games was a thrill for the Jackson County athletes, their surprise upon returning home capped off a great day.
They were greeted by a Seymour Police Department officer at the southbound Interstate 65 exit ramp, and four other officers assisted in escorting four vehicles along U.S. 50 to Seymour High School.
Then at the school, the five officers — Crystal Schapson, John Armstrong, Jeremy Soliday, Gabe Jordan and Blake McCrary — got out of their vehicles to greet and congratulate the athletes and take pictures with them.
“It was awesome,” Crystal Ackeret said. “I had four athletes in my van, and they all said it made them feel like a superstar. I hope the officers all know just how special it really made everyone feel.”
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Special Olympics Indiana: soindiana.org or facebook.com/soindiana
Special Olympics Indiana Jackson County: facebook.com/jacksoncountyspecialolympics