Special Olympics makes champions out of young, old

by Christine June
USAG Kaiserslautern

Army Lt. Col. Trevor Shaw said it was a great feeling watching his daughters cross the finish line at the 50-meter wheelchair assisted race May 6. The race was one of the many activities held at the German Police Academy in Enkenbach-Alsenborn as part of the Special Olympics Spring Games.

Special Olympics is an international program of athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. It’s been held in the KMC in early May for 26 years courtesy of U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern. For the past 10 years, the event has been held and co-hosted by the German Police Academy.

Sixth-grader Haley Shaw, 12, from Robinson Barracks Elementary/Middle School in Stuttgart was a first-time competitor at the games. She drove her wheelchair alongside her sister Erica, 9, who ran cheering and waving a plastic hand-clapper.

As the girls crossed the finish line, Erica put her arms up in the air and congratulated her sister, who was bursting with laughter. Erica then ran over to the event coordinators to get her sister’s ribbon for participating in the event.

“(It’s) just a great feeling. It’s encouraging to see my disabled child – physically – have some kind of athletic outlet and to see my other child be so supportive to her sibling,” said the girls’ father, Colonel Shaw, with the Headquarters, U.S. European Command in Stuttgart. “(Special Olympics) is a great event – well run and organized.”

More than 800 athletes competed in this year’s games, said Jason Ille, the garrison’s Special Olympics coordinator. Athletes, ages 8 to 70, competed in eight games such as softball, volleyball and Bocce Ball. Those competitors 5-years-old and older enjoyed 12 non-competitive events such as a bean-bag toss, an obstacle course and basketball.

“These games are very important for their personality and self-esteem that’s with them in their daily lives,” said Monika Kabus, a teacher with the Hans-Zullinger-Schule in Grünstadt, who was at the games for the first time with 40 of her students.

More than 1,500 German and American Army, Air Force and Navy military and civilians from the KMC and surrounding areas volunteered for the event, said Larry Zani, who has been an event coordinator for the Special Olympics for the past 18 years.

Master Sgt. Johnny Rapier, from the 86th Airlift Wing Construction and Training Squadron, helped out at event by registering athletes and volunteers.

“Even if it’s to say ‘Hi,’ cheer on athletes and meet people, it puts a smile on my face,” he said. “I just can’t help it. It’s such a great event.”

Volunteers at the event were from Stuttgart, Vilseck, Bitburg, Spangdahlem, Heidelberg, Mannheim, Hohenfels and Grafenwöhr. Athletes represented 41 schools and institutions throughout Germany, including 16 Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe.

Schools participating for the first time were Hohenfels Middle/High School and the brand new Netzaberg Elementary and Middle Schools. It has been many years since the Robinson Barracks Elementary/Middle School has taken part in the games, Mr. Zani said.

Ribbons were given out at the competitive events just for participating.

By the end of the games, most athletes were adorned in colorful ribbons.

Gold, silver and bronze medals were also awarded in the competitive games in gender-specific categories such as assisted, unassisted and wheelchair bound.

Haley won a gold medal and her twin brother Connor, who was also participating in the games for the first time, won three silver medals.

“They were trying to decide which was better – the one gold or the three silver medals,” Colonel Shaw said after the games. “(Haley) was really excited; she looked forward to these games, and she has slept with her gold medal for the last two nights.”

For showing spirit and love of the game, Sara Jung, an athlete from the Lebenshilfe in Zweibrücken, was awarded the Sarah Bican Inspirational Athlete Trophy. This award is named after Sarah Bican, a DODDS teacher who brought Special Olympics to Kaiserslautern in 1974.

Lt. Col. Mechelle Hale, the garrison’s commander, awarded the Commander’s Trophy to Bootz Arno, 51, from the Lebenshilfe in Kusel.

“I am surprised and very happy,” he said. “I’m going to put this trophy in a special place.”