As people across the globe make changes because of COVID-19, Lycoming County’s Special Olympics (SOLC) organization did not hesitate to keep their participants safe, yet active.
Using regulations set up from the umbrella organization of Special Olympics Pennsylvania, and the guidelines of the state of Pennsylvania, the Centers for Disease Control, and Special Olympics International, SOLC has created a healthy, unifying Return To Activities plan.
Training Director Lester Loner states that the main purpose of this plan is to maintain normalcy and continuity by keeping SOLC’s sports seasons in tact. This means decreasing disruptions to the players’ training cycles, increasing levels of focus, and supporting healthy involvement.
SOLC provides immense social, physical, and mental benefits as it increases healthy living for people with intellectual disabilities. Participants as young as four years old can start to train, and participants at eight years old can compete. Along with this, there is no age maximum, and there are coaches and resources to help aid in every players’ goals. Brendan Rooker, a SOLC athlete, has been training and participating since he was 10 years old, and is now 20 years old. He immerses himself in the challenges and is “happy to have fun” as he said through a bright smile. The Special Olympics provide different training/competing types for lower or higher functioning participants. They divide training and competitions by age, gender, and skill level, as well as accommodating to individual training/competing through the transitions into team-playing. Tracy Rooker, mother of Brendan Rooker, states that she was proud to see her son start off with individual Volleyball-skill training, to progressing to team-playing training and competitions. She also showed excitement for the COVID-19 changes that proved her son is still able to be active and participate.
The advisory board of SOLC was responsible for enacting the Return To Activities plan. The committee is made up of 12 volunteers, of which some, as Loner states, do not even have athletes in the program, therefore they have no personal benefits attached to their voluntary and generous work.
In following all established guidelines, such as physical distancing and sanitation protocols, the Return To Activities plan has a twofold division: in-person with appropriate restrictions, and virtual training.
In-person, or coach-to-athlete training, is available for athletes who do not have major health issues such as heart problems or diabetes, and/or are more comfortable with their health, and trusting to not to become a high-risked individual. This type of training allows coaches to work one-on-one with each athlete, thus maintaining socially-distanced, masked, and regulated contact with them and providing the best possible training opportunities to those athletes. Currently, long-distance running and long-distance walking is the only sport that athletes are able to participate in as in-person training. Brendan Rooker is elated to go to his long-distance walking practice and agrees that even after a bad day he “feels good going to practice.”
Virtual or at-home training is available to all other athletes who either do not wish to participate with in-person training or are considered high-risk individuals and are not permitted to currently participate with in-person training.
This training allows the coach to provide training information, via technological media, directly to the athlete, family members or caregivers/staff. These individuals then report training results back to the coach so that progress records can be updated and maintained for each athlete.
SOLC athletes are presently training virtually in bocce, soccer, and powerlifting. Tracy Rooker immensely appreciated this transition as her SOLC team/staff are “like her family.”
She said that SOLC not cancelling their training and competition events helps Brenden and her to be socially/mentally better, and receiving support from the coaches is so important to her; as Brendan’s volleyball coach is even like family. To make this virtual transition even more comfortable and adjustable, SOLC has virtual events like Virtual Bingo that provide a fun, no-pressure way to familiarize with the process. Soon, they will host the FrostBite Running Fundraiser online that will have volunteers/athletes/local participants run on the track through a hosted live online feed.
As COVID-19 and its remedies and regulations change, and the public becomes better educated or receives new guidance, Loner states that their Return To Activities plan will evolve in response to those very changes. Loner’s single word describing SOLC as a whole is “committed.”
“The volunteers, our unified partners, the parents and supporters… and the athletes,” Loner said. “They are all committed. Sometimes the athletes’ goals aren’t necessarily to win constantly; it’s to feel happier with the little goals, even if it is that they just didn’t cross their lane and they were able to stay focused.”
Special Olympics Lycoming County currently serves 131 athletes and has 14 exciting, different sports programs, and all volunteers/supporters/athletes receive updated information and opportunities for sports training and (online) competition days. The upcoming competitions include sectionals through Juniata College, online competition through Villanova University, and the college-student run online state competition hosted by Penn State University. For more information on Special Olympics, the Lycoming County chapter, or the upcoming Winter Opportunities (like volunteering or sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, any interested can contact SOLC at 570-433-1685 or visit www.solyco.org or www.specialolympicspa.org.
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