On a Saturday morning in late spring, the energy in the University of St. Thomas’ new Anderson Student Center was high. The sounds in this atrium would be familiar to any athlete: conversations (and complaints) about the wait for the next event, injuries, calling across wide spaces to team and family members. A look around might reveal a few things you hadn’t expected, as well: athletes helping each other negotiate stairs; competitors with Down syndrome; T-shirts with messages like, “Spread the word to end the word” and “Be Brave: Minnesota Special Olympics.” You’ll see these and a host of competitors in very bright green uniforms.
Osseo Maple Grove Athletics Association (OMGAA) head of delegation for Omega Storm, Rick McCullough, explains that the lime-green uniforms make it easy to find their athletes in a crowded gym. Their athletes come from Osseo and Maple Grove, but also from all over the northwest metro area. McCullough says that no potential team member is turned away. The only requirement is that athletes have a documented cognitive disability (athletes with only physical disabilities compete in the separate Paralympics.) Special Olympics athletes range in age from 7 years old and up, with many athletes well into their 20s. Teams are organized by ability, and not by age. A majority of the teams are co-ed.
Although the sports culminating this early spring weekend include basketball, swimming and weight-lifting, OMGAA fields basketball teams in winter. In summer, athletes choose between softball and bocce ball. Sue and John Russell’s son, David, competes in bocce ball and basketball. He tried softball “but it didn’t work,” says his mom (and Special Olympics coach), Sue. Three or four years ago, the family approached McCullough with the idea of starting a bocce ball team. Now, David competes in sports year-round. “I like the tournaments the best,” he says. “It’s about having fun.” The pattern of parent coach/Special Olympic athlete is ubiquitous. “We wouldn’t be anything without our coaches and administrative volunteers,” McCullough says.
Kamla Ramdihal was born in Guyana, South America. Her family moved to the United States about 10 years ago, where there are more opportunities for her to play sports. She also competes on OMGAA teams year-round. Another athlete, Jake Sawyer, pitches on the Rain softball team (all OMGAA Special Olympics teams have names related to weather) and helps his mom, Pam, with her volunteer work as OMGAA Special Olympics softball commissioner. “I’m proud of her,” he beams.
Next door in the Anderson Athletic and Recreation complex, the OMGAA Thunder, a team of mostly 20-something men, plays an aggressive and highly skilled basketball game. Many of the athletes on this all-male team also compete in softball, and last summer won the national tournament in Witchita, Kansas. After the day’s basketball game (unfortunately a defeat), I had the opportunity to speak with a few of the competitors, many of whom drive, work (as do 75 percent of the Special Olympic athletes), and who state that sports are an important competitive and social outlet.
Softball and basketball team member Antoine Driver, 24, “[loved everything] about the national tour last summer.” These athletes work hard and play hard with an extra dose of heart.
Because of their championship in 2015, the OMGAA Thunder has been automatically seeded in the 2016 national tournament in Roanoke Valley, Virginia. Follow their season- and post-season progress at the website here.