By CHRIS MARKHAM
More than 200 area Special Olympic athletes took part in a regional Special Olympics Basketball Invitational at the University of Mary Washington’s Anderson Center on Sunday, jan. 21. UMW Athletics hosted the day-long event as part of an NCAA Division III national partnership with the Special Olympics organization.
The inaugural UMW Special Olympics Invitational Tournament took place in the Anderson Center and Goolrick Hall gyms on Sunday with Special Olympians of all age and abilities from in and around the Fredericksburg area. This year’s tournament was the first held at UMW, as it has been previously held at local Chancellor High School.
“For many years, we’ve been trying to get some Special Olympic activity here at the University of Mary Washington,” said Area 11 coordinator Tim Doyle. “The interaction between [Area 11’s] athletes and [UMW’s] athletes is a win-win for all of us.”
Area 11, the Special Olympic team comprised of Fredericksburg and surrounding counties, used their own money to fund the event. Jim Garrett, the Rappahannock Regional Director, collaborated with director of athletic development Phillip Pierce on the possibility of UMW hosting the event. According to Garrett, the change of venue has also been a result of “really good growth” experienced by the region over the past three or four years and the old venues could “only hold so much.”
“We’ve never been on the campus to have an actual competitive event so we weren’t sure how everything was going to go, but everything’s gone great,” Garrett said.
Last year, UMW athletics paired with Area 11 to raise money for the Polar Plunge, an annual Special Olympic festival in Virginia Beach that serves as Special Olympics’ biggest fundraiser of the year. The money raised then helped go towards Sunday’s tournament.
“Last year alone, we raised $95,000 just for our local area,” Doyle said. Student-athletes at UMW helped to raise more than $2,000 of that money last year for the Polar Plunge.
The day started at 10 a.m. when dozens of teams flooded the Anderson Center to enjoy their new venue. Games went on until 4 p.m., after the conclusion of the Division I championship game, which was played in the Ron Rosner Arena in front of family, friends and UMW student-athletes.
“There’s been a huge response from the University and the student population from this,” Garrett said.
“I’ve gotten dozens of compliments for the facilities and volunteers from the parents.”
According to Garrett, around 250 Special Olympians from 25 different teams were participating in the wide variety of events. The Special Olympians were separated into six different divisions, based on skill level, Division I being the highest. Throughout the day, teams from each division competed against one another in either full-court or half-court games or, for lower divisions, a skills competition, comprised of shooting, dribbling and passing drills.
“It’s been really nice and rewarding,” said freshmen women’s basketball player Allanah Miller. “They got to come watch us play yesterday and we came back and renew them the favor and watch them play and help them out with their games.” Miller, along with other members of the UMW men’s and women’s basketball teams, served as referees and scorekeepers for the games. Student-athletes of the UMW Student-Athlete Advisory Committee also volunteered for the event.
The DIII level of the NCAA has a national partnership with Special Olympics, and according to director of athletics Ken Tyler, UMW is trying to expand their role in the partnership.
“One of most important components of DIII athletics is the connection with the community, and in particular, reaching out and helping those who may need a hand,” Tyler said. “The absolute best part of it is the interactions our student-athletes are having with the Special Olympians. Those are the types of relationships and life-long lessons that mean the most and we want it to be a positive and impactful experience for the Special Olympians.”
UMW athletics has developed a relationship with Area 11 Special Olympics over the years. The NCAA DIII’s national partnership with Special Olympics is the driving force behind this, according to Pierce. Clinics have been held with numerous other sport programs at UMW, but according to Tyler, the department’s goal is to perform community “engagement” rather than just “service.”
“Service is terrific and we need service, but to me engagement is more meaningful because it’s ongoing and it implies a relationship that is real,” Tyler said. “That is what we want with Special Olympics.”
According to Tyler, UMW athletics plans on continuing to host Special Olympic clinics and inviting Special Olympians to games.