With athletes trained in resilience, Special Olympics helps members maintain mental and physical fitness through virtual events

Michael Heup, a Special Olympics athlete who has become a leading advocate for people with disabilities, took a deep breath as the torch approached. Heup, who started his Special Olympics career in 2001, has previously competed in soccer, basketball, tennis, snowshoe and other events.

“It’s disappointing that we can’t have large-scale events and gatherings, but we are excited to be back doing what we love,” he said. “Sports!”

His teammate behind him threw his fist in the air.

The small gathering stood in stark contrast to the boisterous crowd of thousands of athletes and law enforcement officials who have rallied around the torch lighting each year.

For 50 years, Special Olympics Maryland has fostered community for thousands of people with disabilities. Weekly trainings and annual tournaments have provided opportunities for connection and purpose, inspiring confidence among people historically subjected to social ostracism.

But when the pandemic took hold in March, Special Olympics Maryland, among other chapters nationwide, was forced to cancel practices, basketball tournaments, kayaking championships and its Summer Games.

A spring and summer void of sporting events could have been catastrophic for the nonprofit and those who rely on it. But instead, it blossomed into a vibrant virtual community buoyed by the signature fortitude of its athletes.

Over the last six months, state chapters of the Special Olympics have launched a series of virtual events that have helped maintain active routines for hundreds of thousands of people with intellectual and physical disabilities. In Maryland, Special Olympics leadership spearheaded weekly online fitness classes. And they launched walk, run and biking challenges, customizing a mobile app to track activity. They have also established online social clubs, including one that throws a virtual dance party every Saturday night.

“What we offer at Special Olympics, it is an essential part of our athletes’ social interaction,” said Jim Schmutz, president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland. “But what you and I have experienced in the pandemic as it relates to isolation is more close to what our athletes experience historically on a daily basis. So in some cases, our athletes have adapted better than anyone.”

Monique Matthews, a 30-year-old athlete from Baltimore, has been a regular track-and-field competitor with the Special Olympics for eight years. Before the pandemic, she spent many of her days looking forward to Tuesdays and Saturdays, when she would meet with her friends to hone her running skills.

While she noticed people around her mourn the loss of their routines, Matthews simply found new ones online when the public health crisis mandated isolation.

“I just don’t look at it as a pandemic. I look at it as an opportunity to get to know myself better,” she said.

Once shy and afraid to speak her mind, Matthews has taken advantage of the comfortable virtual environment to become a leader among athletes statewide. Over the last six months, she has started leading Zoom sessions about police brutality and teaching online exercise classes that leave fellow athletes sweaty and tired.

“Right now, I feel free,” Matthews said Friday in Annapolis as Special Olympics Maryland kicked off its annual Torch Run with a cauldron lighting.

The decades-old fundraising event, which is in partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, historically brings together athletes and law enforcement officials to run, walk and bike. This year, determined to keep the tradition alive, five Maryland athletes and representatives from local law enforcement agencies led their community in a virtual commencement ceremony. As part of the virtual torch run, athletes across the state are encouraged to run, walk and bike in their communities and log their progress on a shared mobile app.

“You guys seriously look awesome,” Schmutz said, facing athletes and law enforcement officials who stood socially distant on dock, sun bearing down on their matching gray T-shirts.

Despite its virtual events and a slow return to small, in-person trainings and competitions, some Special Olympics athletes say they feel the absence of their pre-pandemic in-person sports leagues.

Tim Gowen, now 71, was one of the first Special Olympics athletes in Maryland more than five decades ago. Through the death of both of his parents and two siblings, Gowen sought comfort and joy in athletics. But now, he is isolated in Charles County with his sister, far removed from his almost daily trips to the bowling alley.

“I miss my Sunday Special Olympics bowling,” he said over Zoom, donning medals from various championships he had won over the years. “In fact, I miss a lot of bowling.”

But known for his easy nature and determination, Gowen has found meaning in virtual events put on by Special Olympics Maryland. He participated in virtual dancing a few weeks ago and particularly enjoyed the chicken dance. And for the last few weeks, he has spent at least half an hour every day preparing for the virtual torch run by walking in semicircles around his driveway.

“There is something about this group here,” said his sister Kathy Breckenridge, smiling at her brother beside her. “It is absolutely family.”

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