The squeaking of rubber soled shoes running on polished floors of the gym could be heard from the glass-paneled entrance. On the back of their shirts, athletes represented their city names in large block lettering. Spectators sat scattered across the wooden bleachers.
On Saturday, Apr. 8, Whittier College hosted the Special Olympics in the Donald E. Graham Athletics Center. The Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with physical and mental disabilities. Their website boasts4.4 million athletes registered in 170 countries. The group was founded in 1968 and has since declared itself not only an athletic association but also “a global and social movement,” according to specialolympics.org.
“It was amazing being there, especially as an athlete, getting the reminder that at the end of the day, it’s just how much you love the sport that keeps you in it,” volunteer and junior Maddie McMurray said. “Seeing all of these athletes playing really hit home for me.”
Many of the volunteers at the competition are members of the College’s Poet Student-Athlete Leadership Academy (PSLA), an organization that aims to develop, challenge, and support student-athletes and coaches in athletics, academics, and life skills. As an inter-community partnership, PSALA has worked with the Special Olympics for several years, volunteering at numerous events and hosting an annual basketball competition. “It is an NCAA DIII initiative, so we decided that we wanted to make sure that Whittier College athletics was doing its part and giving back to the community,” Head Women’s Soccer Coach and Assistant Athletic Director Student-Athlete Welfare Monica Gerardo said. “Besides hosting and organizing the annual basketball competition, we try and get out to other sporting events and volunteer throughout the academic year.”
Additional sports events like this weekend give players the ability to work on their skills through inter-city challenges. “These give the athletes the opportunity to do more competition throughout the year,” said Community Services Supervisor of the Parks, Recreation, and Community Services Department for the City of Whittier Ruru Pierre. “The athletes really pour their heart out every time they go to a competition and they work very hard. They’re really good,” Pierre said. “I feel like I’m watching the Lakers!”
For Lakewood athlete Samuel Mesa, one of the highlights of the day was when WC mascot Johnny Poet walked among the bleachers offering high-fives and pictures — aside from the time he enjoyed spending with his team. “We get along, we call ourselves a family because we’ve been together for the longest time,” said Mesa. Though they didn’t win this time, he looks forward to future games and victories.
“I believe that the outreach program has been a complete success,” Gerardo said. “It’s a learning and growing environment for all those involved. I hope that the event encourages our own student-athletes to reach out into their local communities and get involved. As for the future, we will continue this partnership with the Special Olympics and hope that the tournament will continue to grow. We’ve gone from eight teams to eleven teams. Maybe next year we will have fifteen! Like I mentioned before, if we can promote positivity, sportsmanship and volunteerism, then I think we are on the right track.”
Pierre welcomes the public to joining the Special Olympics family. “Anybody can come and watch, and if anyone is interested in being a volunteer or a coach, they can come and see me at the city!”