IOWA CITY — Thousands of athletes had the chance to feel like an Olympian during the Special Olympics Mid-Winter Tournament Saturday.
Due to their intellectual or physical disabilities, it’s a chance these athletes don’t always get.
“They don’t get included in a lot of things, so it’s just fun to include them and give them something they can do,” said Robin Joens, a first year Special Olympics gymnastics coach from Cedar Rapids.
The Special Olympics Iowa Mid-Winter Tournament drew thousands of athletes to Iowa City Saturday for the annual competition that brings competitors from around the state.
Special Olympics is an international organization that allows individuals with intellectual disabilities to participate in various sports throughout the year. In Iowa, participating athletes can choose among 23 sports, said Stephanie Kocer, marketing and communications manager for Special Olympics Iowa.
At Saturday’s event, athletes competed in cheer, dance, power lifting, basketball and gymnastics at the University of Iowa Field House and two Iowa City high schools.
Kocer said the Mid-Winter Tournament Saturday was “the championship” for athletes in those sports and is one of eight statewide Special Olympics competitions held each year.
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The program is open to anyone who is eight years of age and older. In fact, Kocer said there were athletes in their 70s participating Saturday.
Some, like Katie Stephan, have been participating for more than a decade.
Stephan, a 30-year-old Dubuque resident who plays in her wheelchair due to spina bifida, a birth defect that caused her spinal cord to not develop properly, first signed up for basketball skills when she was 14. On Saturday, she was one of 28 athletes from the Dubuque Packers team who came to the tournament, with her participating in the 3-on-3 basketball competition.
“I love it. Just being around other teams and being around other friends from the surrounding area that I’ve come to know and come to play with and be around,” she said.
Last year, only six athletes participated in the gymnastics portion of the day, said Erin Birkenholtz, the southeast regional director for Special Olympics Iowa, but on Saturday, there were more than 20 individuals from three teams.
Birkenholtz attributes the jump in participants to gymnastics facilities across the state opening their doors to special needs attendees. As gymnastics is a sport requires the necessary equipment and coaching, Birkenholtz said it had been difficult in years past for cities to form teams.
“(Gymnastics) is one of the core sports for the national and world games,” she said. “It’s great to have this sport at the state level that’s also big nationally.”
12 athletes competed through a sponsorship by the Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation Department under the direction of Joens, who owns the Somersaults Gymnastics Center in Cedar Rapids. Joens said this is the first time in five years Cedar Rapids has had a gymnastics team with Special Olympics.
“It’s been a blast. We’ve all had so much fun with them,” said Joens, whose 13-year-old daughter Karaleigh Joens participated in the gymnastics team.
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Kocer said Special Olympics aims to accomplish two goals: to give individuals the opportunity to stay fit and remain active while at the same time generating what she called “a more inclusive society” that the athletes can enjoy both at the competition and afterward.
For Katie Stephan’s mother, Irene Stephan, 64, of Dubuque, that more inclusive society includes social interaction that participants might not otherwise get.
“The kids are surrounded by the sports, but there’s so much social activity connected with it that it’s good for the kids,” Irene Stephan said. “The social activity is as important as the moving and the competition. I’ve seen some of them on the team very shy and not going out there — but in a couple of years, you’ve got them moving up, being more aggressive with the ball and being able to see ‘wow, I can do this’ and continue to grow.”
Joens said she now hopes to continue the tradition of Special Olympics in her gymnastics facility.
“We’re going to try to have some kind of program if we can and keep this going,” she said.
For more information on Special Olympics Iowa, visit www.soiowa.org.