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Bird Brown: Be glad our special athletes have a chance to shine

Over the past year, I have been watching the trials and tribulations (mostly tribulations) on Facebook and other social media outlets of a friend of mine who retired from the police force and moved with his wife to sunny Florida.

Besides the daily weather update to rub it in the faces of his friends from up here in the Great White North, I also follow his significant pizza consumption that rivals that of Barstool Sports, and him playing in tournaments of his newfound passion, Pickleball.

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One of his most recent posts caught my attention more than the others. To celebrate his 50th birthday, he and his wife made their way to Walt Disney World to participate in the Special Olympics at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. In the inaugural Special Olympics Pickleball tournament, my friend served as a Unified Partner with his partner athlete and the two of them went on to become the first Special Olympics Pickleball champs.

We are fortunate to host the Special Olympics right here in Carroll County. Dozens, if not a hundred or so, athletes come to Westminster High School to participate in our annual event that draws not only athletes, but their families and friends.

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In addition, many high school students from across the county get to also serve as partner athletes to help their partners navigate their way through the various activities planned out for them during the event.

Several years ago, as the Carroll Special Olympians were preparing for the state competition here in Maryland, we invited the soccer team out to serve as ballboys and ballgirls at one of our games and they played a mini-game during our halftime. It was a great night where our boys were able to appreciate the athletic gifts that they were born with and to learn from the determination and joy of participation that the Special Olympians had as they played the same game.

I’m from a generation where none of this was possible just a few short decades ago. Our schools didn’t have the special needs students on campus as many were either in other special programs outside of school or parents kept them home and gave them their education in a private setting.

I don’t know when the magic lightbulb went off and things started to change, but we are all so blessed that something or someone was the agent of change and began to matriculate special needs students through the general population of students to provide them with the equal and fair education that is their right as a citizen of this great country.

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Carroll County Public Schools, modeling after Baltimore County’s Allied Sports and the Special Olympics Unified Sports programs, offers a program designed for students who are interested in playing a sport but do not have the skill or desire to play on a varsity or junior varsity team. They offer three co-educational sports throughout the year: Bocce ball in the fall, bowling for winter, and corn toss in the spring.

I remember the first time I went to a corollary sports Bocce ball event that our school hosted a few years ago. One of my students was the captain of the team and asked me if I would come out and support him as he led our school’s athletes against the other schools in the county.

I was amazed at the organization of the event with 8-10 Bocce ball courts set up on our gym floor, the number of participating athletes from every high school in the county, and the number of fans that were filling the bleachers to enjoy the event.

What struck me the most was the competitive nature of the contests.

Sure, there were both special needs and able-bodied students that were participating just for the enjoyment of being part of a team, but I saw very few differences between the desires and competitive nature of the other athletes participating in the corollary sports competition and those that I coached later that night in our home soccer game. Being a part of the team and sharing the experience with their teammates is paramount to all athletes, regardless of their abilities, and being able to sport a jersey with your school’s colors and name across the front is something I share with them, even though my high school sports career ended almost 40 years ago.

All too often, we focus our attention on the high-performing and oftentimes pampered professional athletes that we admire because of their amazing athletic talents. Maybe we should stop for a second and learn from the kids who really get what it’s all about.

Special Olympian Melissa Ann Schopp once said in an interview, “It’s a place where people like me can just be ourselves and not be judged by our disability or our skill level. It’s a place where we can make friends who we’ll have for the rest of our lives.”

Isn’t that what every athlete wants? Heck, isn’t that what we all want?

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