Calvin hosts over 500 Special Olympics athletes


Photo by Kelsey Sabourin

The cold drizzle on Saturday morning did not dampen the spirits of the 532 athletes competing in the Special Olympics games hosted at Calvin College.

“I’m excited to be with friends, excited to run … because I’m good today!” exclaimed 10-year-old Kelly before she took off for another warm-up lap around the track.

“Everybody was excited to be there — the volunteers, athletes and parents,” said junior Laura Wheeler, who chaperoned an athlete for the day. “Surprisingly, I didn’t see anyone cry. I thought I would witness some meltdowns, but no, everyone was smiling even though it was raining. Still so much joy.”

The athletes, with ages ranging from eight to over 60 years old, paraded around the outdoor track to music by Calvin’s pep band for the opening ceremony, which ended by lighting an Olympic torch and releasing a couple hundred balloons.

This year’s games included 13 events and saw an increase of almost 100 athletes from last year’s games.

Nick Caudle, regional program director for Special Olympics, said that Calvin has been partnering with the Special Olympics for over 30 years. He explained what the games mean to the athletes.

“It gives them a platform to show off their amazing talents and an opportunity to perform in front of family and friends,” Caudle said.

“Our athletes do not believe they are any different than the high school and college athletes we are all used to watching, so these events allow them the opportunity to compete just like them and show the world just because they may have intellectual disabilities there is no limit to the things they can accomplish.”

Saturday’s games certainly gave the athletes from all over West Michigan an arena to show their coaches, families and teammates the results of their work.

Lennel Geers, a special education teacher from Sparta, said her students have spent the past few weeks preparing. She brought five students to participate in a running event, a softball throw and a standing long jump.

“The kids are super excited — they love it,” Geers said. “It gives them confidence, it boosts their self esteem, it gives them that pride — something they can shine in, which are huge values for people in general.”

Jessica White, a 20-year-old athlete from Kalamazoo, participated in three swimming events.

“This is my first year and I love it so far,” White said. “I was excited and nervous at the same time. Before I jumped in the pool, I thought, ‘Gosh, all these people looking at me!’ But it was awesome. I definitely feel accomplished.”

White’s mom, who was standing nearby, added that her daughter has been swimming for years, but the Special Olympics gave her extra motivation to swim.

“We got to train at the pool at Western Michigan University,” White said. “She has always loved swimming, but being here today will especially help [motivate] her even more so for state.”

Another Kalamazoo mom, who is 80 years old, has been bringing her daughter to Special Olympics for 20 years. Her daughter is now 54, and still loves the thrill of swimming in the Special Olympics.

The event had an impact on more than just the athletes. Almost 200 Calvin students volunteered to chaperone one to three athletes to their individual events. Many valued the event as much as the athletes.

Junior Alivia Hibbler said she was impacted by an athlete named Miguel. He clearly won gold in his heat of the 100-meter dash, but when it came time for the medals, he was awarded the silver medal by mistake.

“I was utterly confused — it was clear he came in first and in fact his time that was read aloud was faster than the time of the gold medal winner,” Hibbler said.

“But Miguel happily took his place on the silver medal podium. After the medal ceremony, I said that we could go speak to the times-keeper if he would like. He smiled and said, ‘Nahhh, I got second! Let’s let somebody else win gold. Did you see that boy’s face when he found out he won gold? He was so excited. I can’t take that away from him.’”

“I was amazed by Miguel’s response,” Hibbler said. “I learned from Miguel that [winning] is not what is most important.”

Junior Jennie Hartstein and senior Christina Howell also found joy from athletes like Miguel who kept competition in perspective.

“It gave me a fresh perspective on what is important and what matters,” said Hartstein. “Seeing their joy and liveliness … they had such a lack of worry about competition and instead they made it about rewarding each other. They remind me to question where my priorities are.”

“We place too much importance on winning,” Howell said. “There is so much enjoyment that can come from just being in the moment and experiencing this along with others. The athletes are so encouraging to one another, no matter the outcome, they are waiting at the end with a high five.”

Junior Laura Wheeler and senior Garrit van Klaveren also reflected on joy they saw during the day.

“They teach me to be joyful about every detail of life, even things that we take for granted,” Wheeler said. “They have the biggest smiles and hearts you’ve ever seen — so much beauty.”

Van Klaveren worked with a 10-year-old boy who began the day as very quiet and cautious.

“But once I held his hand and threw him into a piggy back ride, he was having the time of his life,” van Klaveren said. “To cap it off, once he got his awards for his events I put him on my shoulders and we did a victory run, and it was incredible to see the smile on his face, when we were running.”

“He was a cutie, I must say,” van Klaveren added. “It was truly a blessing to know that everyone is created in God’s image; despite what we may look like on the outside, we are all God’s children on the inside.”